When Men Give Women Career Advice

A group of women recently got very angry when Jack Welch, former "Master and Commander of General Electric," addressed them with regard to getting ahead in their careers at a recent speaking engagement.

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Earlier this week I responded to an article in The Wall Street Journal that gave nine rules for women to follow to "get ahead" in their careers. I wrote that that type of piece, and eight others, were completely unhelpful to women, and that journalists should stop writing them. But the problem is, these sorts of articles are still being written (some women are even defending them), and worse, the thinking that women are supposed to "do more" to make it in man's world—as opposed to embracing their specific talents and competing on equal footing—continues to exist.

Alas, we are all too aware that the footing is still not equal; the gender wage gap is one key demonstration of that. Harder to pin down, though, are the attitudes helping to perpetuate this, attitudes that made a group of women very angry when Jack Welch, former "Master and Commander of General Electric" (how's that for a hyper-masculinized title?) addressed them with regard to getting ahead in their careers at a recent speaking engagement. Via The Wall Street Journal's John Bussey:

On Wednesday, Mr. Welch and his wife and writing partner, Suzy Welch, told a gathering of women executives from a range of industries that, in matters of career track, it is results and performance that chart the way. Programs promoting diversity, mentorships and affinity groups may or may not be good, but they are not how women get ahead. "Over deliver," Mr. Welch advised. "Performance is it!"

Angry murmurs ran through the crowd. The speakers asked: Were there any questions?

"We're regaining our consciousness," one woman executive shot back.

While being told "performance is it" or to "over deliver" isn't inherently bad advice for women, it is bad in an overall context in which women are expected to work harder because they're women (or, as with the nine rules piece, suck it up and do the work men don't want to do in order to "get ahead"). As Alison Quirk, an executive VP at State Street Corp., told Bussey, we all need to understand the "unconscious biases" at play—biases which Welch fails to acknowledge. As another executive said, "He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men." Per Bussey:

Dee Dee Myers, a former White House press secretary who is now with Glover Park Group, a communications firm, added: "While he seemed to acknowledge the value of a diverse workforce, he didn't seem to think it was necessary to develop strategies for getting there—and especially for taking a cold, hard look at some of the subtle barriers to women's advancement that still exist. If objective performance measures were enough, more than a handful of Fortune 500 senior executives would already be women. "

It's not that women don't work hard. It's that there are other elements at play here that Welch is not acknowledging—like, to start with, the entire history of women in the workplace—that have created a situation in which women are far less likely to be the heads of corporations or even making the same amount of money as men. These women may already be expected to do or are currently doing more both at home and at work than are their male peers. So Welch suggesting something like "over deliver" is particularly galling—galling enough for some women to walk out of the presentation.

However, it's not terribly surprising that Welch would have this to say, nor that women would be upset about it. We're talking about a man who, in 2009, told women "there's no such thing as work-life balance," and that taking time off for family "can offer a nice life" but likely means you're not going to get to the top in your job. That's not super helpful advice to women who do want to be successful in their jobs and also moms—not to mention that stay at home moms or women on maternity leave would probably dispute the bonbon-eating days of luxury that "a nice life" implies. Yet, there are those who defended Welch at that time as telling it like it is, even if the advice isn't exactly actionable. Chances are, if you want to have a career and a family, you're going to attempt to achieve that regardless of Welch's statement. Are you supposed to be scared in so doing that you're never going to get ahead? Shorten your maternity leave to account for his advice (thereby quite possibly undermining other women's maternity leaves—already far shorter in the U.S. than much of the rest of the world—as well?). Here's where some actual, practical advice about working momhood would be nice.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all of this is that Welch hasn't himself faced the problems that he's instructing women about—though he had four kids with his first wife, whom he divorced after 28 years, he's never had to take maternity leave, or make the difficult choices that a working mom faces. In contrast, in 2009, CEO of Dutch business publisher Wolters Kluwer NV, Nancy McKinstry, told women that they could likely take even a couple years off to have kids and still go on to become CEOs (she herself took five months off when her son was born). McKinstry continued, reasonably, “'But if you take a decade off, you probably aren’t going to make it to the top,' adding that reaching the top of an organization requires sacrifices, for men as well as women," writes Rachel Emma Silverman in the Wall Street Journal's career blog, The Juggle. Others at that time said Welch was just out of touch: Women often return to established careers after maternity leaves, for instance. It's almost amusing that much the same criticism has occurred regarding Welch's more recent comments. You'd think he'd have altered his perspective a bit? But maybe, once a "Master and Commander," always one.

A more germane question, perhaps, than the one the Journal posits—"Is Jack Welch a timeless seer or an out-of-touch warhorse?"—is the question of why Jack Welch continues to be hired to give women advice about their careers. Here's a novel idea: How about supporting women's careers by getting women who've been there to deliver the career advice for women? 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.