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“No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance”

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric Corporation, caused a stir with a comment made in his keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management conference on 28 June. “There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” said Welch, who added “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

Welch, who has been married three times, elaborated, saying “We’d love to have more women moving up faster, But they’ve got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one.” The Wall Street Journal’s “Juggle” blog on balancing life and work said audience reactions, mainly human-resources managers and specialists, were mixed. “When people are not visible, it does hurt,” said one attendee, referring to the out-of-sight/out-of-mind risks employees face when they leave the workplace for extended periods of time. Another audience member noted that many women have children after they join management ranks, which allows them to return to their careers already in progress.

Many bloggers reacted to Welch’s comments as well. Conor Friedersdorf, guest blogging yesterday for Andrew Sullivan, had some of the more interesting comments. Friedersdorf says that if someone is penalized for temporarily stepping off the corporate ladder, the problem is with the ladder, not the employee, and that can eventually hurt the enterprise. “Doesn’t Mr. Welch’s approach artificially limit the number of qualified applicants considered for top jobs where the applicant pool is already smaller than optimal?” asks Friedsdorf.  “Doesn’t it prevent some people with singular, extreme talent from ever being considered?” He adds that it’s no coincidence that CEOs “lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships, dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc.”

This issue is particularly meaningful to scientists, who find themselves wanting to start families at the same time in their careers (graduate school, postdoc, or early academic or professional post) when they are expected to have high research output. Juggling these demands is a continuing interest on Science Careers. We most recently looked at how balancing career and family affects women physician-scientist trainees.