This article is written by FWI Guest poster Andrea Sparrey.
Jack Welch’s recent comments re: work/life balance and career aspirations: did they touch a nerve? If so, what can you do? This week’s Wall St Journal article, highlighting Jack Welch’s comments at the recent SHRM conference in New Orleans raised issues that many of us have thought about over the years. Welch said, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” Mr. Welch told the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in New Orleans on June 28. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
There are lots of reasons why these comments can cause eyes to roll (as mentioned in the article) or frustrations to rise. There will be commentary all week about what this means. In particular, there will be lots of focus on whether balance is really possible for those seeking the “ultimate” corporate prize and if Welch’s comments were unfairly directed towards women.
MomsRising blogger Elisa Batista referred to the “bummer” of a speech that Welch gave, in which he called into question the possibility of work/life balance. While the speech itself may have been a bit of a bummer, it presents an opportunity for people to support individuals’ aspirations, regardless of what those individual goals are (or the gender of the person aspiring to them).
Salon’s Andrew Leonard introduces the challenges this presents for men reading Welch’s words . “By his (Welch’s) definition, every man who has risen to the top of the corporate ladder has sacrificed his family for his career. By “being there in the clutch” they’ve not been there for the sick kid or the softball game or the dance performance. Of course men have it easier, since if they want kids they can outsource the job of actually bearing them to a sidekick and don’t have to worry about figuring out how the breast pump works.” Men are talking about this topic more… indeed 49% of men report work life conflict in a 2007 survey vs. just 21% in 1992.
If Welch is right (at least about the sacrifices part)…Assuming it requires substantial sacrifice to reach the c-suite, can’t women still set the c-suite as their goal? In her comments in response to the follow-up WSJ blog, an anonymous contributor highlighted the crux of why this topic is particularly frustrating to women. It ignores the incredible societal pressures that many women experience when they have a child. In her words
“a woman is perceived as sacrificing her family for her work far more frequently than a man is. Period. Men are more willing to “sacrifice” because they aren’t inculcated to perceive working hard and making money as a “sacrifice”, they’re inculcated to see it as their duty as a provider. Women, conversely, have the dual pressure (either from within their family, outside of it, or both) if they want to provide of work/family because there is an expectation that the family/home is their responsibility, regardless of whether that’s how the woman or her husband perceives it.”
Making choices that work for us means knowing what we want and coming to accept those choices, a tough process. As women, do we really need permission to desire a high-impact career? No, but we will require support from those we value in light of the social pressures we’re going to face.
What challenges you might ask (if you haven’t had a child yet or are lucky enough to have experienced a truly supportive environment)? It is just as the same woman quoted above described: “When I was at the same large law firm out-earning my husband by about $50K, I was still asked routinely if I planned to return to work after having a child. When I said “yes”, I was often then asked if I felt guilty about that. When I said “no”, I’d then get asked if I was going back part-time. When I said “no”, I’d then be asked if we were getting a nanny, daycare, etc. Nobody EVER asked my husband these questions – ever.” This seems to be a familiar experience to many of us, who were frequently reminded that we might not know how we actually feel until a baby arrives and where people suggested that we might “love” our babies when they arrived. Their “conclusion” was that we shouldn’t commit to working until we really understood how things would play out.
Is it possible to make it to the c-suite and still spend time with your family?
I don’t know. I really don’t. It certainly takes an incredible amount of dedication and sacrifice for anyone, man or woman, to achieve that goal. It does, however, ignore the fact that some of the best people I’ve watched in a professional environment have achieved a good measure of balance on their way to the top by being incredibly efficient at work. They are present at critical times and have been flexible in changing their plans when demands required it, but they also make sure they find other opportunities to spend time with their families, on hobbies, or whatever it is that fulfilled their personal happiness. I am reminded of the senior strategy partner at a consulting firm that I met, who bluntly told me that if he could take 60 minutes to do yoga every day with his schedule (and call his grandchildren when he was done), then he was pretty confident others could find time for their priorities. He reached the pinnacle of his career and seemed to have found a great deal of balance. Perhaps we need more role models. Perhaps Mr. Welch didn’t have time for fun or fulfillment, but I would venture to guess that other leaders have.
This is where examples would come in handy. Instead of always dwelling on the comments of a few loud (frustrating!) voices, perhaps we can follow the examples of exceptional leaders who have made sacrifices but also achieved a measure of satisfaction in their role as parents, partners and people in addition to their professional roles.
Have you met a leader who was able to maintain a good (or great) relationship with their family on the way to the top? Are you such a person? We’d love to hear from you with some positive examples people can aspire to!
Andrea is a consultant specializing in helping companies to retain high-performing women and support their successful transition into life as working mothers.