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Right Turn
Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 05/04/2012

Jack Welch, Julia and the fallacy of working women ‘having it all’

I have some advice for Julia, the Obama campaign’s mythical gal who is guided through life by the nanny state: Never work for Jack Welch.

Welch, the former head of General Electric, stirred the pot this week at a gathering of women executives with tidbits of wisdom such as: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. . . . [Instead] there are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

He wasn’t done. He told the flabbergasted attendees they should eschew special programs for women in the workplace: “The best of the women would come to me and say, ‘I don’t want to be in a special group. I’m not in the victim’s unit. I’m a star. I want to be compared with the best of your best.’ . . . Stop lying about it. It’s true. Great women get upset about getting into the victim’s unit.”

What does he recommend? More tough love, ladies: “Without a rigorous appraisal system, without you knowing where you stand . . . and how you can improve, none of these ‘help’ programs that were up there are going to be worth much to you.”

Judging from the comments of attendees, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, you would have thought Welch was for banning women from the workplace, dooming them to a life of domestic misery.

There was much hand-wringing and denial.(“ ‘This meritocracy fiction may be the single biggest obstacle to women’s advancement,’ added Lisa Levey, a consultant who heard Mr. Welch speak.”)

Let’s focus on what Welch was saying. He wasn’t saying workplaces should not accommodate women. He wasn’t saying women shouldn’t be allowed choices. He was saying that if you want to get to the tippy-top of the corporate ladder, which few can attain, you’ll have to devote yourself entirely (or nearly so) to your job.

But isn’t that the same for a man who might want weekends free, time with his kids, hobbies and non-work friends? But, but . . . women have children, the women retort. Yes, but deciding to personally raise them is time-consuming, and if you want to do it yourself, you can’t be in two places at once. If anything, I think, we’ve learned “quality time” is a crock.

This is very disturbing for the “have it all” set that expects life and the workplace to come made-to-order, not off the rack. Unlike Julia, whose every step is paved with governmental aid and every need is anticipated by a gigantic welfare state, we know that life doesn’t really work that way.

It’s not because businesses are cruel or discriminatory. To the contrary, the workforce is now made up of almost 50 percent women. And women are well represented in high-paying professions. No, the reason life in a competitive workplace doesn’t allow you to get to the top by devoting 50 or even 75 percent of your life to work is because there are men and women who will give 80 or 90 percent.

You can kid yourself and say “quality matters more than time,” but in fact the two are related.

Welch upset these women (a lot) because he was asking them to own their life choices. You want to be CEO? Fine. You want to work, but not all the time? Fine. You want to work for yourself with more flexibility? Fine. But you can’t, at least outside “The Life of Julia,” escape the consequences of choices.

I know, mom and dad and an army of self-help authors, teachers, consultants, counselors and the like told you that you could have everything, whenever you wanted it. Sorry, they lied.

By  |  12:05 PM ET, 05/04/2012

 
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