In Matt Lauer’s own words, “Mary Barra has been called the most powerful woman in the history of the auto industry.” So why did Lauer ask the General Motors CEO whether she could handle both her job as an auto executive and her job as a mom of two? “Given the pressure at General Motors, can you do both well?” he asked.
I seriously doubt Lauer would have asked outgoing Ford CEO Allen Mulally, who has five children, whether he could handle running a Big Three automaker and being a father at the same time. And I don’t hear anyone asking Lauer whether he can balance his responsibilities as a morning television personality with his responsibilities to his own three children. In fact, I don’t remember him ever asking a male CEO about balancing the responsibilities of being a dad.
And Lauer’s response to controversy over Thursday’s interview – that Barra was the one who brought up in a previous interview the same issues with work-life balance millions of parents face – doesn’t cut it. It’s not that he asked her how she juggles it all. It’s that he asked her if she was capable of juggling it all.
Implicit in Lauer’s question is the assumption that women –- no matter how accomplished -– simply can’t be both a successful boss and a successful parent. Shame on Lauer for buying into this myth.
It isn’t the 1950s anymore. More than two-thirds of mothers work outside the home. Tens of millions of women balance demanding jobs and family responsibilities every day, most of them without the benefit of an executive salary. It’s time for journalists – and society – to stop assuming mothers can’t be corporate leaders, or any other kind of leaders.
And as if Lauer’s implication that motherhood is a disqualification from the corner office weren’t insulting enough, he went on to actually question Barra’s credentials. Was Barra selected to run a corporation worth tens of billions of dollars because she would give the troubled automaker a “softer face”? Excuse me?
Barra has spent three decades with General Motors. She started working at GM when she was 18 years old. And her credentials are impeccable. But because she is the first female CEO of a major global automaker, Lauer joins an unfortunately large and vocal group of naysayers that assumes Barra only got the job because she’s a woman.
Women make up less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 15 percent of executive officers. Is it any wonder our daughters don’t believe they can grow up to be the boss when women today are challenged if they even dare to try?
On Monday, the Center for American Progress was proud to co-host a White House Summit on Working Families, where more than a thousand advocates, business leaders, policy makers, and workers – mostly women – gathered to talk about how to drag public policy and public sentiment into the 21st century. University presidents, reporters, CEOs, the next generation of women leaders, and First Lady Michelle Obama discussed ways to shatter the glass ceiling and make today’s workplace work for every woman.
Fast forward three days, and you plainly see the attitudes and biases that are holding women back. When high-profile men like Matt Lauer assume mothers can’t be leaders, they send our daughters the message that they have to choose between a career and children – a message no one sends our sons.
At the current rate, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country. That will continue to be true until we transform a culture that undervalues women’s voices as well as their work. It will continue to be true until we remove the barriers to their equal partici¬pation and advancement. And clearly Matt Lauer’s comments show we have our work cut out for us in changing the culture, too.
Neera Tanden is the President of the Center for American Progress and Counselor to the Center for American Progress Action Fund.