Yes, Matt Lauer, You Can Be GM’s CEO and Be a Mother, Too!

Hypothetical situation: You have the CEO of a major company on your morning news show for an interview. This CEO has been under the microscope for good news (positive sales numbers) and bad news (product issues). So what’s tops on your list of questions? How to fix the products? Why are sales strong? Are they a good parent? Wait, what?!

If you did a double take at that last question, well, you’re not Matt Lauer on The Today Show. He had an interview this week with Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, and he had the audacity to ask her if she felt she could be both a good mom and a good CEO. No, I am not joking.

First Matt Lauer asked if Mary Barra was hired because she presented a softer image at a time when the company needed better PR; her response was that she earned her position and was qualified on her merits. He then followed it up by asking if she thought she could be a good parent given the stresses of being the CEO of General Motors. Lauer has defended the questions by saying that Ms Barra has discussed her work/life balance before, and that he absolutely would have asked a male CEO, explaining that he felt it was fair game since she’d discussed her family in an interview in Forbes.

Yes, Matt Lauer, You Can Be GM's CEO and Be a Mother, Too!

The Forbes profile is online here. To save you the trouble, I did a word count, and the article clocks in at 3,582 words about Mary Barra and General Motors. The section on work/life balance is 102 words. The remaining 3,480 words discuss Ms Barra’s biography, praise from her predecessor about her job performance, and of course a lengthy discussion about GM’s infamous recall and ignition issues. As part of that discussion, yes, her family was briefly mentioned, and she did say her kids care more about her being a good mom. That’s … not shocking. All kids feel that their parents should place being parents at the center of the universe. My son is one year old, and his vocabulary is limited to doggy/uh oh/yay/hi/mama, and even he would be able to communicate that my job is clearly less important to him than whether or not I am being a good parent! So there was Matt Lauer, interviewing a woman who has been the face of a major American corporation during an incredibly difficult time, and he thought “You know what people want to know about? How she feels about motherhood, and whether she has her job because she looks friendly and cuddly.”

Contrast this with how the press treats men in top positions. No one asks President Obama if he feels he can be a good father and still be president; nor did they ask George W Bush, or Bill Clinton, or any father who has had school age children in the White House. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has three children, and no one is asking him if he feels he can be a good father and be a good corporate leader.

This isn’t to say that everything should be equal and the same forever, and I don’t think that work/life balance should be off the table for all discussions. I do think that there’s pressure and expectations that are different if you’re the CEO of GM. She’s the first woman in that position ever, in a very male dominated industry, and her kids are not babies. And GM has serious issues with their image and possible lawsuits. It seemed like a weird time to zero in on her gender and motherhood, and then to claim it was fair game because of an offhand mention in an interview.

That’s why the timing is my main issue. If he were interviewing Marissa Meyer I wouldn’t be as annoyed. Yahoo is on fairly stable footing, and whatever issues she has are about her and not her gender, and she’s proven herself as a CEO. So if he were chatting with her and asked about work/life and her young son, that would be less jarring. In this case, Mary Barra has been in the hot seat for months, and her company can’t go two days without more bad news. Focusing on her family and continually asking if she can handle motherhood and her corporate issues implies that she has to choose, and since we know from prior interviews and prior years that other CEOs of auto companies have NOT been asked that even while teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it comes across as sexist.

And in the end, this isn’t just about Mary Barra, it’s about the double standard all women face when they are working mothers. Matt Lauer stepped on a landmine when he implied — purposely or not — that Mary Barra had to choose between steering GM out of a serious crisis or raising her boys, that she couldn’t do both. The one positive in all this is the backlash against this attitude; regardless of how people feel about Mary Barra, or GM, it’s getting people talking and pointing out that motherhood doesn’t preclude one from being a professional, or vice versa.

Hopefully someone sends that memo to Matt Lauer and The Today Show!


Categories: Rants and Raves

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5 replies

  1. Carly- I agree that it is a shame that, in 2014, there is still a question to be asked about this by anyone. Then again, there are a number of things that are still questioned in 2014 that still have me scratching my head… And I fear we are moving backwards not ahead as a country when it comes to social issues.
    That noted, I do think all the jumping on Lauer is misplaced energy. He was picking up on the question he had seen raised elsewhere and was letting her respond to it directly. She looked totally unfazed and, in good CEO-fashion, offered an answer that was totally benign. No, the question would not have been asked of a male CEO. That isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it is the case. Lauer gave her a chance to address it rather than having others speak for her. (Moreover, a male CEO would not have included her kids’ expectation that “Job 1” for her remains being their mom. I thought it was an interesting response but one that highlights the fact that her challenges finding balance may in fact be very different. Again- That isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it may the case.)

    Fact is, it is 2014 and she is one of the people shattering the glass ceiling. Question like this- dumb and problematic as they are- is part of the process. In the same way I continue to look forward to the day my female colleagues are no longer referred to as “Women Rabbis” but simply “Rabbis” I look forward to the day when such a question would not even occur to someone. Until that day I personally think we benefit from putting it out there, allowing the person in question to respond and talking about this.

    I’ll end my rant with this- one of my issues with the on-going movement of PC (and I’m not suggesting you played into it but some of the less measured responses elsewhere sure do) is that it makes it unsafe to ask questions and have discussions. That is the ONLY way we can move things forward. Shutting things down is part of the problem… Not the solution.

    • I agree and I do think that going overly PC shoves issues away instead of addressing them. But what sticks with me about this is how it was approached-she wasn’t wandering the halls of GM looking for a job and someone shoved her in the CEO slot. She worked for years to reach that position and I am sure she and her family have found and are continuing to find ways to balance her high demand career with their lives. But her career trajectory has existed for a long time, and isn’t anything new for her or her kids…so presenting it as though it’s an issue on par with the health of GM’s corporate culture and product quality raises the gender discussion to a new spotlight level. If it were a bio on her, absolutely. But it’s an interview about GM.

      • So there’s now another recall on GM vehicles and it finally helped me put my finger on why I am so bothered by the interview, and it’s a fairly cynical viewpoint:

        I think Mary Barra may lose her job over these recalls simply because she’s a GM veteran…depending on how deep and how messy these recalls and lawsuits become, there could be pressure to remove anyone and everyone from “the old GM”, and having the CEO be an old GM vet is not a great sign for job security, regardless of gender. I would just hate to see people assume any failure on her part was a gender one, when there’s more substantive reasons why she may succeed or fail and much of that has to do with her GM legacy, not her family life.

        Does that make sense?

  2. Here is my basic thought – you have limited time in an interview, and therefore your questions reflect your priorities and your editorial and personal bias. So for Lauer this was not just an ‘acceptable topic’, but a priority issue. And THAT is the problem.

    The fact that everyone says ‘we would ask the same of a man’ rings hollow because NO ONE DOES!

    Imagine someone asking Obama if he is qualified to be both black and president.

    On the flip-side, remember in Mass when Jane Swift became Gov and tried to deflect that she was making the state helicopter her personal shuttle (at great state expense) as ‘unfair questioning’ based on gender and her family issues? Um, no – we were concerned about the tens of thousands of $$ per day for you to go home and change diapers! :)

  3. This one is a tad difficult… Whilst I completely agree with the above comments, and my own questions with C Levels rarely digress to family matters unless in a social situation, that is because my interests lie elsewhere. Unfortunately, the demographic of The Today Show viewer is what Matt Lauer has to address, inadequately or not. I’m guessing that posing questions his audience would like answers to could be awkward at best. Thoughts?