Jack Welch, Women and Work-Life Balance

Oops, he’s done it again.

Just when the so-called “War on Women” was fading from the political headlines with nary a shot fired (beyond those on talk radio and cable TV gabfests), former GE kingpin Jack Welch tossed a hand grenade into our midst last week. Let John Bussey of the Wall Street Journal, writing on May 4, tell us what happened:

Mr. Welch and his wife and writing partner, Suzy Welch, told a (May 2nd) gathering of women executives from a range of industries that, in matters of career track, it is results and performance that chart the way. Programs promoting diversity, mentorships and affinity groups may or may not be good, but they are not how women get ahead. “Over deliver,” Mr. Welch advised. “Performance is it!”Angry murmurs ran through the crowd. The speakers asked: Were there any questions? “We’re regaining our consciousness,” one woman executive shot back.

Aficionados of Welchian forays into the Mommy Wars fondly recall  June of 2009, when he told the annual meeting of the Society of Human Resource Professionals to forget about work-life balance: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” the thrice-married Welch said. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” Talk about the proverbial skunk at the birthday party.

It would be easy to dismiss his unscripted jeremiads as those of an “out of touch warhorse,” as Bussey suggested, or just “Spectacularly Stupid When it Comes to Women” as a Forbes headline read after his latest outburst. However, Welch is one of the most prominent of late 20th century CEOs, one whose every utterance causes the Death Lizards of the Consultocracy to tremble with wonder, and is taken seriously enough that a federal judge used his remarks at the SHRM conference as evidence in tossing out a class action against Bloomberg brought by working women (EEOC v. Bloomberg, 2011).

Faithful readers know I have written about work-life balance before, and I agree to a certain extent with Welch: if you are going to progress in a career, there are times you are going to have to work your tail off regardless of gender. Here is where the World According to Jack derails for me: in response to a question from the audience last week, he said women who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if “you’re not there in the clutch.”

This is disingenuous, a classic “straw man” argument. Set up something that really isn’t an issue, then knock it down. At Coca-Cola Enterprises, I worked with plenty of male and female executives. Not to claim any sort of prize, but I happened to promote the first woman to run a major Coke bottler (Denver Coca-Cola Bottling Co.) and most of of my key lieutenants when I ran HR were women. Never have I seen them or any other female executive in any organization not be there “in the clutch” and I doubt if you have either. Jack, if you are reading (I know you never miss “Psychology at Work”), I am calling you on this one. When did a key woman executive abandon you “in the clutch?” We want specifics. And how many truly “clutch” moments are there at work, anyway, as opposed to brain-dead meetings than run over into the dinner hour? One per month? Per quarter? Per year?

What I have seen is plenty of women who don’t want to play with the boys when the serious business is over. They have better, more important things to do (fellow Talent Management blogger Aubrey Daniels posted an interesting article about this recently) And that is one of the dirty secrets of the work versus life myth. Men define things women might call “life” – hanging out with close friends, for example – as “work.” (I plead guilty here). Play golf with the guys instead of leaving a bit early for a sick kid? Work. Head to happy hour with the boss instead of the carpool line? Work. Company suite at the ballgame tonight instead of making sure homework is done? Work. Take clients to an, ahem, “gentleman’s club” until the wee hours? Work.

I don’t mean to pick on Jack Welch; from what I can tell he was a great CEO in most ways, one who understood the importance of humor, culture and personality in the workplace. Plus, he can take care of himself. However, we all need to be honest about so-called work-life balance. Women work just as hard as men in the “clutch.” They just don’t redefine the word “work” to fit into their lifestyle.

Let’s hear from you. Do you have any great stories from the “work-life” front lines?