As the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra probably expected to answer questions about cars and recalls, but not her qualifications as a mother. But on Thursday's Today Show, that's exactly what Matt Lauer asked Barra to do, challenging her on whether she could be a good CEO and a good mother. Seriously, are we still asking that of working women?
Lauer's interview with Barra was the CEO's first televised appearance since the February recalls that, to date, have affected over 20 million cars. Barra has appeared on Capitol Hill numerous times, and most recently testified before Congress earlier this month. The natural line of questioning, and the answers that the American people likely wanted to hear, would involve the company's major missteps that have resulted in serious safety issues and several deaths, and how Barra could have been unaware of the problems.
But instead, Lauer made a mockery out of the interview (and himself) by going for the cheap shot — can women really work if they have a family?
You’re a mom, I mentioned, two kids. You said in an interview not long ago that your kids told you they’re going to hold you accountable for one job and that is being a mom.
Barra answered in the affirmative with a smile. To which Lauer continued,
Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?
The criticism about Lauer's question has largely been that the Today Show host would never ask the same question of the man. But the more salient point here is that he has not, nor has anyone in recent memory, asked a working father how he handles his work-life balance.
Justin Hyde, who has written about the automotive industry for 15 years, noted on a Yahoo News blog that all previous GM CEOs have had children, and that only a "couple" of them were ever asked about work-life balance, and that "it was more often them who brought it up in small talk about what was going on in their lives outside the company."
So socially accepted is it for men to lead both professional and family lives that "working father" is not even a real term, but "working mother" is a label that most if not all career women have faced at one point or another.
Unemployed men who have families are, in fact, are often considered deadbeats, chastised for failing to support the family by bringing home the bacon. Just last month, a court ordered a man to stop fathering children until he was able to support the four he already had. But stay-at-home moms face no such criticism, and are often expected to keep things at home running smoothly, leaving the money-making to the men.
This wasn't the only offense Lauer committed. In yet another unbelievable inquiry, Lauer asked a slightly contradictory question, suggesting that it was because of Barra's status as a mother that she landed the highest ranking job at the company. Said Lauer,
...some people are speculating that you also got this job because as a woman and as a mom because people within General Motors knew this company was in for a very tough time and as a woman and a mom you could present a softer image and softer face for this company as it goes through this horrible episode. Does it make sense or does it make you bristle?
You know what makes us bristle, Matt Lauer? The nerve you have to even entertain such a ridiculous notion on national television. Barra, of course, immediately dismissed the claims as absurd, saying,
Well it’s absolutely not true. I believe I was selected for this job based on my qualifications. We dealt with this issue — when the senior leadership of this company knew about this issue, we dealt with this issue.
Again, another question that would be laughable if posed to a man. Can you imagine? "Some people are speculating that you also got this job because as a man and as a father, you could present a tougher and more masculine image for this company." Like, come on.
Matt Lauer should know better, especially considering his fellow hosts of the Today Show, two of whom are also both mothers and television journalists. Savannah Guthrie is seven months pregnant, and Natalie Morales-Rhodes has two children. Both of them, however, are just as capable as Matt Lauer of hosting the morning news program, as well as fulfilling their roles as mothers.
As for Matt Lauer himself, perhaps he should consider his own successes as a father — as Bryce Covert of Think Progress pointed out, Matt Lauer, a father of three, has traveled to 50 locations for "Where In The World Is Matt Lauer," and also stood in for Bob Costas to host the Sochi Olympics earlier this year.
But then again, Matt Lauer is a man, and therefore exempt from questions about his familial responsibilities.