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Nell Merlino

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An Open Invitation to Jack Welch

Posted: 06/04/2012 2:03 pm

Heard the one about Jack Welch at The Wall Street Journal "Women In the Economy" forum? In case you haven't, here's a brief recap: On May 2, 2012, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch (and his wife and writing partner, Suzy Welch) spoke to a gathering of women executives from a range of industries about what's needed to get ahead in today's workplace.

Welch had some pretty provocative views about women and our ability to succeed on the corporate level -- views that are in direct opposition to our philosophy at Count Me In and what has been proven through the success of our community members.

Some of his thoughts? That while diversity-promoting programs, mentorships and affinity groups can be good, they cannot ultimately help women advance. According to Mr. Welch, only results and performance are needed to succeed. Women need to "over deliver" because "performance is it!"

He also said that there's no such thing as a work-life balance -- a claim he also made in 2009. Writing in the WSJ, Jack Bussey noted the horrified reaction of women in the room, some of whom ended up walking out while Welch was speaking.

Many of the women who stayed were deeply offended.

"Of course women need to perform to advance," Alison Quirk, an executive vice president at the investment firm State Street Corp., said in the Journal article. "But we can all do more to help people understand their unconscious biases."

Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a long-time supporter of Count Me In's work, agreed:

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.

She's right. But in reality, the numbers are far lower. Of all the Fortune 500 companies, only 3% have a female CEO. A survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey & Company shows women occupying 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions and only 19% of C-suite jobs.

This whole discussion has fascinated me, especially in light of a recent Pew Research Center study that found that two-thirds (66%) of women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59% of men. Over the last 15 years, there has also been an increase in the share of middle-aged and older women who say being successful in a high-paying career or profession is "one of the most important things" or "very important" in their lives. Today, about the same share of women and men ages 35 to 64 share this view.

So how does that work? How can it be that more women aspire to be CEOs but so few of us have actually made it? Can it really be all about 'performance,' as Jack Welch asserts?

No. Emphatically NO. And as a man who is a role model to so many businesspeople, Welch needs to understand what's really going on with women in business. When women are put in a place to perform, we do great. The problem is that women aren't offered these jobs.

So what's the solution? As I have been saying for years, start them yourself -- like Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, and the youngest woman to join Forbes's World Billionaires list.

Clearly, Blakely has "performed" quite well, but she did it on her own. She wasn't appointed CEO; she didn't take over for someone else. She did it all herself.

2012-06-04-ABalkandNMerlino03122.JPGSo did Leah Brown, the founder of A10 Clinical Solutions, and Theresa Alfaro Daytner of Daytner Construction Group, Inc., Count Me In Awardees who have created million dollar businesses. What's more, Leah has two kids. Theresa -- who works in a male-dominated field -- is a mother of six. And Ariela Balk (pictured with me here), founder and CEO of intimate apparel company Ariela-Alpha International, runs a $300 million dollar company and has eight kids! How's that for work/life balance, Mr. Welch?

Of course, these women know my number one rule: You can have it all as long as you don't do it all. Part of not doing it all means networking and meeting other people -- which flies in the face of Welch's theory that affinity groups don't help women get ahead.

Theresa and Leah are members of so many groups -- including the Women Presidents Organization, The American Heart Association Go Red for Women Executive Leadership Team, Board of Directors of Greater Women's Business Council and the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce - in addition to CMI. In 2010, President Obama recognized Theresa at Fortune Magazine's "2010 Most Powerful Women Summit," where she was named one of the magazines 10 most powerful women entrepreneurs of the year.

"I'm not an accidental entrepreneur," Daytner said. "I've been very calculated in terms of wanting to be a successful businesswoman."

Rather than walk out of the Women's Economic Forum while Jack Welch was speaking, these are some of the things I would have told him. I want him to know about CMI and what we do here, and how we are empowering women to run their own shows so they don't have to worry about "performing" for anyone else.

So here it is, an open invitation to lunch with our community members and supporters and me to further discuss the role of women in the workplace from our perspective. I extend this invite to Suzy Welch, as well. As the mother of four teens and one who has written extensively about work-life balance, does she honestly agree with her husband's views? I would love to talk to them both. I think we'll all find it enlightening.

 

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