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

The Atlantic article gets half the story.

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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