Jack Welch vs. Feminists: The Dumb Debate Over Female CEOs

Women have more flexibility than men to write their own destiny.


General Electric CEO Jack Welch ignited a firestorm recently when he told female executives that to become top dogs (like him), they have to toughen up. "Over-deliver," he lectured. "Performance is it." Forget about "life balance." A couple of women walked out—and others have since condemned him as "spectacularly stupid."

Nasty though this spat was, it masks a fundamental agreement between Welch and his feminist detractors: They both regard the paucity of female CEOs as something regrettable needing correction. But if there's anything regrettable here, it's that so many men in the 21st century are still reflexively busting their derrières for the pleasure of parking them in the C-Suite.

There is no doubt that women executives are a rare breed. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs—the same as in the tech companies of the young, dynamic, multiethnic world of Silicon Valley.

Feminists blame this on enduring sexism in the workplace. And there is no question that sexism is a real problem. I can't think of a single woman (myself included) who has worked in a male-dominated environment and not felt that she must work extra-hard to prove herself before she is taken seriously, something men rarely encounter. That might discourage some women. But for most, that's not the main obstacle to climbing the corporate ladder to the topmost rung.

The truth is that corporations are just no fun. They require insane hours, adherence to rigid hierarchies, mind-numbing work and a taste for political maneuvering that would put Machiavelli to shame. It's not that women can't hack it. They can. A recent survey by Harvard Business Review found that women executives are rated higher than male executives by their superiors and colleagues in 12 of the 16 competencies that constitute outstanding leadership—including supposed male fortes like "taking initiative" and "driving for results."

It's just that women don't like it. Most women with options (and contenders for top executive jobs certainly have options) don't think that a fat corporate paycheck is worth sacrificing their home and family. Women would much rather run their own lives on their own terms than the rest of the world on someone else's.

The first to point this out was journalist and blogger Lisa Belkin in a 2003 New York Times article. Although women made up roughly half of the student body of professional programs in elite universities and were recruited by top firms in all fields, Belkin found, they had a tiny presence in higher corporate echelons. And the reason was that somewhere along the way, the lure of a high-powered job simply vanished for them, something she dubbed the "opt-out revolution." (Belkin, herself a Princeton graduate, had given up a full-time position as a staff writer and aspirations to one day run the Times for a part-time gig and children.)

For her efforts, Belkin was pilloried as factually wrong, emotionally deluded and, worst of all, a "choice feminist," a dirty word reserved in some feminist circles for women who betray the cause of gender equality for the sake of their own personal fulfillment. But the "opt-out revolution" has marched on. Companies have been trying to boost the ranks of female executives by re-examining their promotion policies; offering greater workplace flexibility; and implementing mentoring programs (which Welch rightly ridicules as institutionalized victimhood). But a National Science Foundation study two years ago found that female executives remain twice as likely to leave as males. And census data shows that the rate of stay-at-home moms has grown from 19.4 percent in 1994 to 23.7 percent in 2009.

Gender-equality feminists regard this as a travesty. But that take is as dumb as Welch's. Just because women are not assuming their rightful place in the patriarchal power structure doesn't mean that they are returning to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. Rather, they are striving for a higher balance based on their own inner needs and strengths. And they are able to do this because they have allowed the feminist revolution to liberate them from the stigma against working women—without letting it consign them to a life of wage slavery.

It is unfortunate that men haven't experienced something equivalent that would liberate them from traditional role expectations and allow them to make unorthodox life choices for a more fulfilled and self-actualized existence. Men remain psychologically wired for worldly success. But it's unclear whether it's their inner needs that are driving them or external social expectations.

If feminists were honest, they'd acknowledge that this state of affairs really presents the best of all possible worlds for women. Should men, liberated from social expectations, decide that they too prefer to stay at home rather than remain stuck in soul-crushing jobs, women will have to pick up the slack or pare back their lifestyles. Either way, they'd lose the social and psychological space they currently have to write their own destiny. This might be equitable and fair, but it won't necessarily be good for women.

As for Welch, if he weren't so impressed with himself, he'd realize that women have negotiated a far better deal for themselves than men in the modern world. He'd exhort men to question their priorities, instead of hectoring women to embrace his single-track notions of success.

He is a Neanderthal, all right—but not for the reason feminists think.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.