Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch - the "manager of the century" to some and a ruthless dinosaur to others - stirred up a bunch of HR types and a lot of publicity by declaring recently that there is no such thing as work-life balance. According to a Wall Street Journal report on Monday,
Welch told attendees at a recent gathering of human resources professionals, "There's no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."
Aiming his remarks directly at women - not men - Welch pointed to examples of highly successful corporate women and continued:
"We'd love to have more women moving up faster," Mr. Welch said.
"But they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one."
Taking time off for family "can offer a nice life," Mr. Welch said, "but the chances of going to the top on that path" are smaller. "That doesn't mean you can't have a nice career," he added.
BBC correspondent Katty Kay, is all about how women can use their power in the business world to redefine their work lives. At least that's the buzz. It's on my summer reading list.)
Now, there's nothing Welch said that he hasn't said before about work-life balance in his books and speeches. In fact, in his best-seller Winning, he describes even the concept of balance as a "luxury." But Welch's remarks, focused as they were on women, drew lots of comments from journalists, bloggers, and their readers. See, for example, these posts in the Conglomerate, Salon.com, and the WSJ's own Juggle blog - and the hundreds of accompanying reader comments.
Most of the bloggers and chatterers - even those that argued that Welch is hopelessly out of date with modern work trends - acknowledged that Welch, to some degree, is right. After all, rising to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company - or to the top of any profession - usually is incompatible with having a meaningful family life (or any life at all) outside the office. (Jack himself - with a few wives in the deck and some children that he admittedly didn't really parent - is a prime example.) But what was interesting about the comments, is that a lot of people - moms, dads, and non-parents too – were sharply critical of Welch's one-dimensional view of success. Most of the entirely unrepresentative field of WSJ readers and other bloggers viewed a successful life as one that involved a satisfying but not all-consuming career and ample family time. (And maybe even some time for culture, hobbies, travel, friends, and civic involvement.) Maybe not "having it all" - but making compromises to achieve some balance.
To me, this discussion comes at an interesting moment. It coincides, on the national stage, with Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. And on the personal front, with my annual (or sometimes biennial) meet-up with my four closest girlfriends from law school. (I head off to Chicago tomorrow night!)
On the national stage, Sotomayor, barring a meltdown (as Republic Senator Lindsey Graham put it), is poised to become only the third female justice ever on the Supreme Court, and, of course, the first Latina woman. Now, in Welch's view, that might not equate to being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company (the pay and perks are much less lucrative), but it's certainly the top prize in the legal world. And Sotomayor appears to have put in the kind of grueling hours that Welch would require for his executives.
Bringing it back to work-life balance, it's not surprising that Sotomayor, who often works from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. - as The New York Times reported - does not have children. Sotomayor does, though, appear to have friends and interests such as opera and baseball. (The Times' emphasis on "loneliness" as Sotomayor's "frequent companion" seems overdone. Would the story have had the same angle if Sotomayor were a man?)
While some women in the legal profession manage to balance their high-powered careers with a family, many of those with the "top" jobs in the legal world don't. See, e.g., Janet Reno, Janet Napolitano, and many of the partners at large corporate law firms. (On the other side, of course, there are women like Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Cinton, who have managed to reach the pinnacle and have children. But they may be outliers, each having purused a very unique route to their high positions.) The phenomenon of women supposedly "opting out" of the most demanding legal jobs highlights this. (For a sense of this issue, check out the transcripts from this March 2009 Yale Law School conference: "Opt Out" or Pushed Out? Are Women Choosing to Leave the Legal Profession? ).
On the personal front, it resonates as well. My law school girlfriends and I graduated nearly 20 (aagh!) years ago from a "top ten" law school. At least some of us were on the law review and worked at demanding internships. After we graduated, all five of us accepted offers for clerkships with federal judges or prestigious law firms. Although we were never on Sonia Sotomayor's star track, we did have high professional aspirations. But, for the past few years, a big topic of discussion when we get together is what we've termed our "declining ambition."
Don't get me wrong, though. We're not opting out. We have careers and are (well, I can say I am) happy with our career choices - two in-house counsel, two government attorneys, one small firm partner. We take pride and interest - most days - in our work. And while we all have different working arrangements, I know we all work very hard at times. But the responsibilities and joys of children, spouses, and personal interests, have led all five of us to choose what Welch labels the "nice career" rather than the "top of the path." The implications of such choices for our lives, for women lawyers, and women in the workforce generally are far beyond this post (and my bedtime). I'm looking forward, though, to lots of discussion this weekend about all these issues with my friends.