You may know Jack Welch as the former CEO of General Electric. I know him as a giant douchebag, at least when it comes to talking about the gender gap in the workplace, because he has a monumentally horrific track record. He was out in full flower last week at a Women in the Economy conference, where he cheerfully informed female attendees that the real problem with the gender gap was, of course, their performance.
That was his message to women seeking to build careers. Just work harder, and the gender gap will magically disappear, because it's rooted solely and entirely in performance. This isn't the first comment he's made to that effect, suggesting that women are at fault for the significant lack of representation at the top, because they just don't work as hard as men.
Jenna Goudreau at Forbes points out that this whole "Women don't work as hard as men" thing is a load of bullpuckey. The Harvard Business Review noted that women outperform men on many key standards, and that many women in the workplace feel continuous pressure to work harder and do better -- exactly how Jack Welch wants them to feel, of course. Even women with established careers are afraid for their positions, aware that they're constantly under scrutiny because of men like Welch.
Goudreau noted that:
Furthermore, according to a recent survey of 5,000 U.S. workers by workplace research firm theFIT, women work more than men. In fact, 54% of women vs. 41% of men reported working 9 to 11 hours a day, and 7% of women vs. 5% of men reported working more than 11 hours a day. Women are also more likely to work 6 to 7 days a week (11% vs. 7%), more willing to do work on vacation (68% vs. 62%), and less likely to lie about a “sick day” (14% vs. 20%).
So much for the claim that women don't work as much, eh?
In 2006, Welch had an estimated net worth of $720 million. High-flying female CEO Meg Whitman has an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, but it's been bitterly won, and it's pretty lonely at the top for her. In 2009, of the 500 biggest companies in the United States, only 13 were headed by women. For another delightful statistic, only 13 CEOs ever have been Black, with only six Black CEOs currently active.
Welch wants you to think this is because women are lazy, unmotivated, and unable to work as hard as men. Ample studies suggest that his argument holds less water than a leaky barrel; if leadership roles are accorded on the basis of performance, ability to work, and commitment to the job, women should actually be heading up more companies than men, in addition to occupying more spaces at the top. So clearly, something else is going on here.
Like, gosh, maybe gender inequality?
Business has long been a boys' club; for the ultimate example, check out Bohemian Grove, a playground for the wealthy and powerful ... that excludes women. Doors are still closed to women throughout the corridors of power, no matter how hard they work and how not-lazy they are. People like Welch, occupying positions of authority and power, can easily toss off explanations for the gender gap that deflect attention from reality, but the reality is pretty ugly.
Female CEOs are under constant scrutiny, even as they're closed out of a lot of the places where their male counterparts arrange deals, exchange information and solidify business relationships. Even when they clock long hours and score much higher on metrics used to assess performance and fitness for their positions, they're disadvantaged from the start; before they set foot in a single corporate office, they're already 10 steps behind the men.
Some critics have suggested that one of the most effective ways of breaking the gender gap is to smash the bro culture at the top, and studies bear this out. When companies have more women at the top, their overall culture becomes more friendly to women, which creates more gender equality:
We’ve also seen from research that when women do reach decision-making positions, it is not until they constitute a critical mass upwards of 30% that they are no longer perceived as representative of a special interest, but rather as full members of the group. One report demonstrates how including three or more women on corporate boards improves governance by providing collaborative leadership.
A classic example of bro culture at work can be seen in the tech industry, where "brogrammers" dominate and women fight a steady tide of sexual harassment and exclusion. Covering this issue for Mother Jones, Tasneem Raja highlighted some of the worst offenses in the industry, and you can take a gander through Geek Feminism's timeline of sexist incidents in geek culture for more examples. For a more detailed personal narrative of what it's like to be a woman in tech, check out Skud's "On being harassed."
Tech companies with more women on board in key positions tend to have fewer problems of this nature, and more opportunities for women. This would seem to suggest that the problems for women in tech -- and in the workplace in general -- actually don't lie with the performance of individual women, but rather with the culture in their workplaces.
Welch wants to place the blame for the gender gap squarely on women, making it their personal problem. All the evidence suggests, however, that it's actually a social problem that requires cooperation from everyone to solve.
Sorry, Jack, you lose this round.