Sexist Pig or Inept Interviewer?

This blog/rant is inspired by Matt Lauer’s non-apology follow up for asking Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, ” Given the pressure of this job at General Motors, can you do both well? (Meaning being a CEO and a good mother?)

His non-apology was defensive drivel, IMHO, “If a man had publicly said something similar after accepting a high-level job, I would have asked him exactly the same thing.”

Of course the chance of that actually happening is zero, zilch, diddly-squat. No male executive questions his ability to do it all, in public. No female executive publicly questions her ability to do it all – that happens in private, over wine, with friends, and even then, it is more of a lament rather than a question.

Was Matt Lauer getting at work-life balance or was he asking Ms. Barra if she could be a CEO, since the job is filled with so much pressure, and she is a woman and that might be hard to do and still be a good mother?

Who knows whether it was a work-life balance question? Work-life balance? Is it a gender issue or a working parent issue? Is it asked in all CEO interviews or just interviews of female CEOs? When it is a question only asked of women, it becomes a gender issue instead of a working parent issue, which is actually the real issue.

In any event why should an interviewer even ask that question – can you do your job and can you be a good mother? No interviewer asks a male executive – can you do your job and can you be a good father? No, no one asks THAT question of male CEOs.

I am often asked about the work-life balance question when I speak at events or conferences, “How do you balance being a lawyer/executive/founder with being a mom of three boys.” Most recently I was asked about it at two events where I spoke: in April at the Invent Your Future Conference where I spoke on being an entrepreneur and also at Berkeley where I spoke on a panel discussing, “what to do with your philosophy degree.”

There is no work-life balance - it's just a wrestling match!
There is no work-life balance – it’s just a wrestling match!

At the philosophy degree discussion, I was the only woman of the four panelists, three of whom were lawyers (one corporate, one law firm, and one about to graduate from law school) and one was a high level risk manager (for the University of California). During the Q&A session, I was asked how do I balance being a lawyer with having three tweens/teens. The question wasn’t directed at the three male panelists, it was directed at me specifically. I was also asked this same kind of question at the entrepreneur talk, but it was more centered on how do you fit everything in, not about being a good mother or entrepreneur.

My answer in both cases was the same. It’s a myth – there is no work-life balance. The underlying question is “Can you be a good working mom if you choose work over kids or kids over work?” “Can you be a great _________ (insert your favorite occupational word here – executive, CEO, president, Doctor, Lawyer, real estate agent, police officer, etc.), if you have children? Can you be a great mother if you are a _________(again, insert your favorite occupational word here)?” There is no balance in that. You don’t cease being a mother the moment you slip into the CEO shoes. You don’t cease being the CEO when you are on the sidelines of your son’s ball game cheering wildly.

Work-life balance is a MYTH – it’s not about balance. There is no balance. Work will take up as much time as you let it. Work will take all of your time if you let it. When you are at work, work, when you are with your family, be a spouse, be a parent. It’s that simple. You decide what a good mother (or good parent is). Don’t let others define that for you.

In the end the work-life-balance equation is all about making choices, setting boundaries, and setting priorities.

Making choices – doing your job and being a good parent is all about making choices. Do you travel for work on weekends? Do you work a job that takes over your nights and weekends (i.e. real estate, nurse, cop, etc.). Do you show up to your kid’s soccer game and then spend all of your time on the phone? Or do you engage? Do you engage regardless of when or how much time you spend time with your children? At the end of the day, every day, it is all about choices.

Setting boundaries – I learned a tough lesson when I was at Intuit in an almost all female legal department (which was awesome, BTW). One of the other women has just had a baby and she was unavailable (like blocked out that time on her calendar) at certain times the day, for, if you must know, breast pumping. The other two of us who had also had babies did the same thing but without keeping a set time. This meant we might go too long without pumping or have a meeting that went over, giving us leaky breasts (that was always fun). Would it have worked if we kept to a schedule, probably much better, I’m guessing. But in any event, none of us died, no one was hurt. Our kids still got breast milk, we still got our jobs done. This example is merely one of hundreds. But it is up to you to set your boundaries, no one else will. Do you want to be home for dinner every night with your family? Do you want to make the time to coach your kid’s teams? Decide what is important to you? Set that as your boundary.

Setting priorities – do you miss your son’s 13th birthday to do an interview for work like Matt Lauer did. Your son only turns 13 once. I might have made a different choice than Matt made or I might have used Skype (for the interview or for birthday wishes) or rescheduled the interview, if possible. Sometimes you have to make hard choices but lining up your priorities helps make those decisions easier.

In any event – Matt Lauer’s question and non-apology showcase that there are bigger issues at play for the work-life balance equation and that would have made a more interesting interview of Mary Barra and any male CEO. It’s just that he never asked the question of a male CEO, only Mary. Therein lies the sexist behavior everyone is up in arms about. I, for one, would prefer to have a more fruitful conversation with both male and female CEOs (and other leaders) about how they set boundaries, priorities, and make those difficult choices when work and home life collide unceremoniously.

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