Ask the White Guy: It’s Not About Housework, It’s About Picking the Right Company

The Atlantic article gets half the story.

At most high-flying companies, they usually have Ivy League pedigrees and life experiences that are highly unusual (compared to the average American), like Sheryl Sandberg has.One of my coworkers passed along an article from The Atlantic about why men need to “Lean In,” too.

The Atlantic only got half the story. It’s not about “housework”; if we’re talking about top management, at a certain point, a couple has to decide which person is going to stay home. You cannot have two people with high-flying careers in a relationship unless they don’t have children. If you have children or want a family, one spouse/partner must stay home.

Relatively few people nationwide achieve the career trajectory needed to get into top management. At most high-flying companies, they usually have Ivy League pedigrees and life experiences that are highly unusual (compared to the average American), like Sheryl Sandberg has. Even among that group, many don’t achieve Sandberg-like trajectories, and the problem is that you don’t really know if your career is going to take off until your early 30s. By then, you’ve made several make-or-break career decisions.

The way most companies are run now, the moves you have to make are made with the assumption that one spouse is subordinate—because to get on that trajectory, you have to work 60–90 hours a week when you’re in your 20s. The right moves require frequent geographic relocations. They require that you have no responsibility for elder care. They require that you put in your private time politicking: going to the right events, socializing with the right people, etc. In other words, for people making more than a good upper-middle-income living (more than $500,000), the requirements of time and travel make it impossible for both spouses to be employed. For example, I know a senior woman executive who makes a seven-figure income. There’s NO WAY she can say no to a last-minute client meeting, and there’s no way she can get more than partial flex time. Her househusband has two advanced degrees, but he’s unusual—in the wealthy neighborhoods across the country there are far more middle-aged women with advanced degrees who stay at home than there are men.

The problem as I see it is that the women usually opt out of the corporate rat race because the expectation is that they won’t be treated fairly. And the data agree—they won’t.

That’s why it’s extremely important for men AND women to pick the right company to work for. They’re not all the same. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t recommend that any woman work for Facebook because the only woman who has reached top management has a résumé that is in the top .0001 percent of America. Sheryl Sandberg isn’t just exceptional, she’s SUPER exceptional. Sure, some of the men around her are super exceptional, but not all of them have nearly her pedigree. Fifty percent of the people Sheryl’s age with SUPER-exceptional résumés aren’t women (many have dropped out of the fast track for the reasons noted above); however, I’d estimate that 30 percent of that group are women. This should tell you that if the women at Facebook were just exceptional, they’d have no chance.

Women—and men—should pick companies that have the competency to develop the careers of both genders. I’ll take a Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, where 50 percent of the people reporting to André Wyss are women. I’ll take a PricewaterhouseCoopers, where I’ve heard Bob Moritz talk about the personal responsibility his top management has been assigned to take for the careers of the women reporting to them. I’ll pick a Sodexo, where senior executives talk like real human beings and are passionate about (and busy) doing the right thing.

I’d avoid companies where the CEO speaks paternally or has odd, out-of-date anecdotes, especially avoiding those that talk about “picking a woman” as if that were something remarkable. (Given that women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men since 1982, how remarkable can it be?) I’d look very closely at that web page that shows the company’s senior executives and board. All men? All white men? Since most companies look that way, you don’t want to make a final decision based on that evidence, but ask good questions during your interview process. Unless there are demonstrable management initiatives (executive diversity council, structured mentoring, high-profile resource groups) to change the status quo, don’t count on a good career if you’re not one of them, because they picked a lot of just-exceptional men over their more-exceptional women counterparts many times to get to where they are today.

Don’t let Sandberg convince you that the problem is with women: No matter how much you “Lean In” and how much your spouse/partner does the housework, your career doesn’t stand much of a chance if you work for a company that chooses to run itself in a way that discards most of half the available talent pool.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • Interesting column, but I strongly disagree with the conclusion.

    First of all, most of us are not destined for life as an executive. Evaluating life at the top and extrapolating to all workers is at best a crude metric for evaluating job prospects for women.

    It is irrelevant to say you don’t recommend a woman work at Facebook but you do recommend she consider Sodexo. They are two different companies who do totally different things. I bet there are many women out there at Facebook and other IT companies who are happy to make a good salary, get stock options, work on interesting problems with creative people, and not be an executive. Happier than they would be working at Sodexo.

    • Luke Visconti

      You’re missing the main point. This is about quality of executive decision-making. Of course most people are not destined for life as an executive—but the Fortune 500 has a 50% turnover over any 10-year period.

      Everyone should evaluate the security of his or her job in light of the quality of the management. I’m not so sure about what you’re sure about (regarding Facebook and other IT companies), because what I see, for the most part, is that the IT industry has a complete inability to promote women past a certain point. Look at Google’s management page: 21 people pictured, seven (apparently) nonwhite, two white women. Information on Twitter is harder to find, but according to Forbes, the top five people are men. Look at Microsoft: Of the 16 people pictured, three are women (all white) and two are (apparently) nonwhite.

      I’m not saying that head count is the ultimate litmus test, but it’s a good start. You can go from there and look at a company’s citizenship and what it’s doing to manage diversity within its ranks. The companies that do this best will have the best meritocracy; the best meritocracy will give a company the best chance to make the right decisions in this turbulent business environment.

      Finally, I know Sodexo very well and your comment about that company is simply incorrect; you don’t know what you’re talking about. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • My “comment” about Sodexo was actually not about Sodexo. Never was trying to imply it was a bad company. I was simply trying to say that there are women out there who would be happier in an IT environment in Silicon Valley than working at Sodexo. Your definition of a good company for women will not always line up with women’s subjective assessments of what is best for them.

        • Luke Visconti

          That’s not very convincing unless your “subjective assessment” is the job that’s closest to your house. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Well not trying to convince you – you don’t change your mind once the ink hits the paper. Proximity to home is an issue, as is nature of work. Microsoft, a company you dismissed in your original response to me, has created approximately 12,000 “Microsoft millionaires,” including some secretaries who received stock options. Tell them they should have worked at Sodexo instead.

          • Luke Visconti

            Yeah, that was almost 20 years ago. So while waiting for lightning to strike a second time, you’ll spend a lifetime in a job you don’t like in a place that doesn’t promote women very well (not my opinion, that’s what’s on their website). I wouldn’t advise someone to play the lottery as a career move, especially if you have aspirations to reach top management.

            Flip this around—if you’re the CEO, what kind of people do you want to attract? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I have a problem with the concept:

    “You cannot have two people with high-flying careers in a relationship unless they don’t have children. If you have children or want a family, one spouse/partner must stay home.”

    I’m sure alot of those men having to work 60-90 hour weeks to optimize their success would like to have a little more work-life balance, too. If a job requires 90 hours to perform at one’s peak, it’s not a job; it’s 2 jobs that need to be divided among 2 employees. If more men would start pushing back against such grueling requirements, and insist upon halfway reasonable work hours, if wouldn’t so often be necessary for “one spouse/partner…[usually a woman, to] stay home.”

    • Luke Visconti

      I so agree with you. I don’t think many people have the capacity or stamina to be effective beyond 50 hours of work per week. It’s all about face time, playing politics and sadism. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Ah, very good exchange and I tend to side with Luke on this one. This reminds me of my early days wanting to work in international development and applying to the World Bank. The note back from them then – and still now- is that we only look at Ivy league candidates or those .0001 percenters. So basically, in many instances, without that pedigree you are in non-starter land day one, man or women. Period.
    The extremely sad piece of this attitude is that really good and creative people (women or men) are dismissed with nary a look.

    • Luke Visconti

      The World Bank reminds me of the Federal Reserve: insular, insulated and constrained to the constipated thinking that people who are way too impressed with themselves tend to cultivate. Whoopee, here comes Bwana from Harvard who’s going to tell all us dark people what to do. It’s a wonder we haven’t had World War III yet. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • So women should, rather than look to improve upon themselves, leave the Facebooks and Microsofts of the world and join only companies that have a diverse board, or are recognized by Diversity Inc? I think in order to get companies to change, more women need to “lean in” to their aspirations (at whatever company they choose), and rise through the ranks- to help change the culture from within.

    • Luke Visconti

      Why on earth would you sacrifice for a company that hasn’t already recognized the value of women? It’s not your mission to change some company that you’re working for; it’s your job to fulfill your job requirements. Unless you’re paid to be senior management, you have no responsibility to “change the culture from within.” It’s 2013—companies that don’t get it just don’t get it. That’s fine, the market will decide the repercussions of not getting it.

      You have one life to live. If Sisyphus is your idol and you admire Don Quixote, then have at it and break your teeth off trying to change the minds of a bunch of gazillionares at Facebook or Microsoft. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • I disagree. If you live in a country whose senior leaders beliefs dont mesh with your own – the answer is not to move to another country.

        No, I am not senior management – and my job is to fulfill my job requirements, but I feel a deeper responsibility as a woman, to try to change the culture, and im starting with myself. If women read this book, come together and feel empowered to be more ambitious in their careers, then maybe it will help change the culture from within. If Sisyphus had some help, im sure he’d have moved that boulder.

  • Whoa! I take issue with describing an income of more than $500,000 a year as a “good upper-middle-income living.” According to the Census, the median household income in the US was $50,054 in 2011. An adjusted gross income of $500,000 would put someone in the top 1% of earners! $250,000 would put you in the top 5% of earners.

    • Luke Visconti

      It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I never met a person making that kind of income when I was growing up, but I now understand the larger picture. The distribution of wealth is very lopsided—there are many, many people making that kind of money— and $250,000 per year doesn’t buy much of a living in the places where the well-educated and powerful people life. Read “The New Geography of Jobs” by Enrico Moretti. He shows how the well-educated and ambitious are accreting in some cities/areas and leaving others. People who have drive and ambition pick up and move to those places for the opportunities they offer. You wouldn’t be able to buy a garage for $250,000 in Cheryl’s neighborhood (not even half a garage). Yet, she’s telling you to “lean in.” It’s foolishness to “lean in” at a company that hasn’t “leaned in” themselves. If you have aspirations for a career that transcends “normal” income ranges, then you need the best possible place to develop it. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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