I saw Jack Welch speak at the 2009 Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference in New Orleans. Welch delivered the opening speech for the conference and completely dissed the idea of work-life balance for women in corporate America.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Welch told the audience, "There's no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."
Welch said, "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."
Although this speech happened over two years ago, it still sticks with me and makes my stomach churn. Jack Welch has been married three times and has four kids, and I still believe he represents a dying breed of iconic American men who are wealthy, politically connected and blessed with amazing wives.
If you are a successful businessman from a certain generation, work-life programs will never make sense. If you are a hardworking employee in a regular job—and if happen to have children or manage the care of aging parents—flexible work environments are a tremendously important part of your total compensation package.
And given a choice between losing a valuable employee or creating a flexible work environment for mothers and fathers, one would hope that any smart company would bend over backwards to ensure that a talented employee would stay with the company and continue to advance in his/her career.
Unfortunately, Jack Welch’s words were neither unique nor surprising. He represents a flawed but ever-present worldview where women either have a nice family or a career. With a wink and a nod, he implied that you can either be a CEO or you can be a mother. You can swim with your kids at the country club pool on Tuesday afternoons or you can attend board meetings. You can't do both.
Could you envision a scenario in which you hear a rant like this from a colleague and then you don't walk into your HR rep's office to complain?
Of course not.
But CEOs and executives still speak despairingly about flexibility and work-life balance, so I have this challenge for HR professionals:
- If your CEO or any employee tells you that working women have to understand the tough choices behind work-life balance—and if he implies that you have to know the consequences of taking time off to be with your children—it's time to take a stand.
How do you take a stand? HR likes to educate but sometimes you have to go big or go home. Speak directly to your board of directors. Be prepared to defend your work-life balance programs with data. And make it clear that you want any misguided leader who belittles the concept of flexibility ‘taken out to the woodshed’ and taught a valuable lesson on the consequences of making stupid and misogynistic statements about working women in the 21st century.
Work-life balance starts with HR. It starts with you. Get to work.