In today’s WSJ, former General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch weighs in on women and work, and the so-called work-life balance. The piece carries the headline, “Welch: ‘No Such Thing As Work-Life Balance.’”
As I’m a working mother, you might assume I object to what he says. Not so – with one caveat at the end of this blog.
Jack says: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
Gabby says: What I like about this assertion is it moves the discussion away from some sort of idealized “balance.” Our personal and professional lives are never balanced. One or the other – or both at the same time – is forever tugging at our hearts and nerves at any given time. The pressure to achieve some sort of perfect balance drives women (and probably also men) nuts. I fear it pushes promising young women out of the workforce when they’re starting families because they continually feel they’re failing to maintain what is actually an unattainable balance.
Jack says: Those who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if “you’re not there in the clutch.”
Gabby says: Totally true. Everyone derides ‘face time’ but if your face – and your ideas – aren’t at the office and in key meetings at crucial times, or you’re not in the email or conference-call loop while you’re on maternity leave or otherwise tending to personal matters, your career can seriously stall out. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s the way it is.
Gabby says: The most successful women I’ve known in business, government, professions and non-profits indeed have what Jack might consider “straight” careers. This is to say, they rigorously nurture and enhance their expertise, professional networks and organizational standing even as they raise children. They do so continuously and if they take career breaks – such as maternity leaves – they’re fairly brief ones. Some take longer maternity leaves but are savvy enough to stay in touch with their peers and colleagues at crucial junctures from afar. Many such women have ultra-supportive husbands – I certainly have one – who make it all possible. But even single mothers or women whose husbands also have busy careers build success upon success by staying professionally focused and engaged through motherhood.
Jack says: “We’d love to have more women moving up faster. But they’ve got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one.”
Gabby says: Totally right. So many young women take themselves out of the professional thrust and parry during their children’s early years. Meanwhile, back in the office, the world changes, companies get acquired, new bosses replace old ones, products evolve – and a woman’s career may very well founder. What mystifies me is why more women don’t demand additional support from their husbands, and why men don’t do more to bolster their wives’ careers by assuming more of the child-rearing, household-maintaining responsibilities. It’s 2009, for pete’s sake!
Jack says: Taking time off for family “can offer a nice life, but the chances of going to the top on that path” are smaller. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice career.”
Gabby: I look at a career as a narrative – with a beginning/middle/end. That’s the overarching narrative. In addition, each position on the so-called career ladder is, in and of itself, a smaller narrative. Interrupt those micro and macro narratives for too-lengthy intervals, and the flow is lost.
* Here’s the caveat: All this said, I continue to believe women can have it all. Key is defining what “it” is. Complete devotion to family and career – which we career Moms have – requires having different expectations about balance. Also, as I said (ranted) above, having “it” all is easier with a certain type of spouse or partner.