Why Jack Welch Just Doesn't Get It

Posted on May 15, 2012.

bias |ˈbīəs| noun

Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal convened the Women in the Economy Executive Task Force.  Two hundred leaders from business, government and academia came together supposedly to come up with a plan that would improve the global economy by making better use of the majority gender’s participation. In a session conducted by Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and his writer wife Suzy, there was reportedly a backlash to his comments that prompted many of the participants to lash out and a few to walk out.

The comments that evoked such a visceral response were Welch’s admonition to essentially just work hard and take the tough jobs to get noticed and that women who worked for him didn’t want to belong to mentoring programs because they were for “victims”.  His comments were not well received by his audience.

What Jack Welch doesn’t get is that he is so deeply part of the status quo, that he is the last person to offer advice on how women can advance to the C-suite. He is not alone in his inability to recognize how he contributes to a biased system. I find it remarkably similar to the issues of racial exclusion in this country. If you are part of a historically dominant group, you often don’t understand how that privilege has contributed to your success. Likewise, it is hard for you to understand and recognize inherent biases in systems and organizations that make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for those who aren’t in the lucky gene club to reach the same levels.

So what can Welch and the rest of the CEO boys club do about this? First, they just need to admit that there is an inherent bias that makes it hard for women to become CEOs. Secondly, they need to make sure that recruitment and promotion practices require managers to build a diverse talent pool of people who don’t look like them and don’t allow them to use the shallow excuse of “there just weren’t any women/people of color/ etc in the candidate pool.” Thirdly, don’t let your best talent drop out early because you make it impossible for them to manage their lives and work in your company.  Get rid of the macho BS that tells workers that they have to work 24/7 and subjugate their lives to the company’s whims.

Wake up corporate America, nobody buys that any longer, not even the young men. So it is time to rethink the path to CEO and make sure that it doesn’t pass through the men’s locker room.