Opting Out: Working Women, Jack Welch & The Mommy Wars

To work or not to work? That is the question: whether 'tis nobler to thy gender to suffer the insults that you're not sufficiently committed to the office, feminism or your family, or stop reading articles on the Internet.

First up, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch (who, notably, left the wife and mother of his children after 28 years of marriage, during which she raised his kids), who told a room of mostly women not to expect to get to have time for their families and shit if they want to ever have the corner office. According to Cari Tuna and Joann Lublin of the Wall Street Journal:

"The women who have reached the top of Archer Daniels, of DuPont, I know these women. They've had pretty straight careers," he said in an interview with journalist Claire Shipman, before thousands of HR specialists.

"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.

So, ladies, unless you can get a wife — 'cause, God knows, a husband won't be doing for you what Carolyn Welch did for Jack before he left her for a younger woman — better get used to having a nice little career or not taking time off to spend time with your children.

In Welch's mind, of course, women can make those decisions in a judgment and consequence-free vacuum — you know, like men do all the time! Because, of course, there's always someone else to take care of those kids and no one to judge you for staying at the office every weekend shooting the shit about sports with the boys.

Unsurprisingly, there are some women CEOs that think Jack Welch is full of shit.

But one female CEO disagrees with Mr. Welch. Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Dutch business publisher Wolters Kluwer NV, took a five-month maternity leave when her now 19-year-old son was born and four weeks off after her daughter's birth 13 years ago.

Ms. McKinstry, who has been Wolters' CEO since 2003, says women can "take a couple of years off" to raise children and still become CEO. "But if you take a decade off, you probably aren't going to make it to the top," she says.

She says reaching the top of an organization requires sacrifices, for men as well as women. An American, Ms. McKinstry uprooted her family when she became Wolters' first female and first non-Dutch CEO. Her husband, an anesthesiologist, now splits his time between his job in New York and staying home with their children in the Netherlands.

"I have been successful in business and been successful with a family," she observes. "It requires prioritization."

McKinstry is right: if a woman takes several years off in the midst of a career, studies show that she'll, at best, catch up with her age cohort several years later in terms of income and status attainment but that, in most cases, she's likely to not catch up at all. But McKinstry obviously had an understanding and supportive spouse and enough money (one assumes) to hire people to take care of certain life details that two high-powered people with intense careers would have to have done for them.

Author Pamela Stone has a different solution than having a spouse that is as supportive of your career (and willing to shoulder more of the child-raising burden): she thinks employers should just have everyone work less, so that women's unwillingness or inability to work more isn't as noticeable to employers making advancement decisions. Because that'll totally insure the equality of outcomes! She says:

Reduce hours for everyone.
I think that the husbands are captive by the same forces of an idea worker model that their wives are. That is why my solution is always to get rid of the ideal worker model and find a way to reduce hours. Because these were not guys who didn't want to be involved with their families. And all studies show that younger generations of men want to be more involved and there is no question that they are, hours-wise, more involved than before.

So, rather than encouraging models and systems that promote gender equity in individual relationships and allow men and women to make those decisions for themselves, the role of the feminist movement should be to reduce the hours men feel obligated (or are allowed to work).

And why, you might ask? Because allowing women to have choices in a society that isn't equal means we're not really capable of making them! That's right: a feminism that allows women to choose is really at fault.

The problem with choice feminism is that it always puts the burden of change on individuals and overlooks the need for social movement. It overlooks the need for change in the workplace and forces people to tailor their lives to workplace realities rather than see themselves as part of a larger group. Choice feminism reinforces the sense that it is "your problem."

I think there is a shortsightedness in ignoring the larger structural inequalities and the larger social realities that still, regrettably, exist. I'd like to say, as a woman of the second wave generation, that we solved all the problems. But we didn't. I think it is sticking one's head in the sand if you don't recognize that choices are constrained.

Hmm, I guess we really should get off the pole and stop believing that our choices are one of the benefits of the feminist movement and recognize that feminism is about denying women the choice to live as they individually see fit and rather proscribing a particular manner of living.

Welch: 'No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance' [Wall Street Journal]
Is The Current Women-Heavy Workforce Sustainable Without A Major Overhaul Of The System? [True/Slant]

Related: Balancing Work And Life The Jack Welch Way [Boston Globe]