Straight Story: Balance work-life needs

Economics editor Chris Farrell

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

TESS VIGELAND: Jack Welch stepped into the so-called "Mommy Wars" recently. At a human resources conference, the former head of General Electric said there is no such thing as work-life balance; there are work-life choices.

Many women can have a family and a career, he said. But by taking time off to raise children, their chances of rising to the top of their chosen profession get smaller.

In this week's Straight Story, economics editor Chris Farrell offers his take on the debate.


Chris Farrell: To be fair, we all have to make trade-offs. Economists are fond of saying, "There is no free lunch." Or as Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones and a former student at the London School of Economics, put it:

Rolling Stones: You can't always get what you want....

Jagger's right: You simply can't get around trade-offs. And anyone with the ambition and the drive to try to become a great artist, a famous writer and, yes, a CEO, makes sacrifices. Thanks for the reminder, Jack.

But then why inject gender into the equation? He implied that women could not succeed in business -- let alone make it into the executive suite -- without sacrificing family. And that's where I think he's spouting nonsense.

For one thing, the list of women who are rising to the top of their chosen field, and manage to have families, is long and growing. Take the experience of Ursula Burns. At Xerox, she recently became the first African-American woman to lead a major U.S. corporation. And she succeeded a woman. Both women are also mothers.

Senior management at Xerox was early and strong in its commitment to diversity over the past several decades. For instance, senior leadership evaluated managers on their ability to recruit and mentor underrepresented groups. And their earnings and promotions prospects took a hit if they fell short.

Today, one-third of the company's executives are women. But corporate initiative, no matter how impressive, isn't enough. What about changing the rules for climbing the corporate ladder on an economy-wide scale? Imagine how it would affect the trade-offs young adults face -- both men and women -- if we had equal pay for equal work, high-quality day care and good after-school programs.

The impact of family friendly policies like these would be dramatic. We'd end up with more competition from women for the leadership ranks of society. We'd also have better family values.

Sounds good to me.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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