We can’t control if people like Matt Lauer will ask the question, but we can control our response.
The negative reaction from so many in the business world yesterday to Matt Lauer’s interview questions to GM CEO Mary Barra was certainly refreshing. He flat out asked her first if she got her job because she is a woman and then followed it up by asking her if she can do such a big job and still be a good mother. Afterwards, he took unusual heat from NPR, Politico, and other fellow journalists. Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace even prefaced his criticism with “I don’t usually do this (criticize other journalists), but…” Mr. Lauer’s question highlights his own internal biases and outdated assumptions about the acceptable roles for men and women both at home and in the workplace. Airing them is pretty unprofessional for a journalist. And sadly, it is still far too common for women to encounter this distracting narrative in the context of an otherwise serious conversation about their professional work.
He claimed afterwards the questions were fair game because Ms. Barra herself mentioned in a Forbes article she missed her son’s junior prom for work. Never mind that he, himself is a parent and has a big job that presumably causes him to miss some of life’s “Hallmark moments”. Never mind that Ms. Barra’s extensive GM experience and background in the industry are almost unmatched by competitors for her job, providing that yet again, the standard for a woman’s professional qualifications is so much higher than a man’s. It is beyond insulting that she could be accused of achievement through tokenism.
But questions like this keep coming. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid was questioned in light of her pending Grandmother status. Kirsten Gillibrand was asked how she manages as a woman in the senate. Even last night, I was introduced at an award ceremony, and while reading my bio to a room full of businessmen volunteers with children, the introducer said, “I don’t know how she manages all of this along with a husband and 3 kids.”
While I think Mr. Lauer deserves today’s media scourge, we are naive to think we can control whether or not people will continue ask sexist questions. Just like “middle fingering” the bad driver on the freeway will not teach them to drive better or reduce the total number of idiotic motorists, calling out one person will not educate and enlighten everyone. Further, many challenges of this nature are actually manufactured to tip the recipient off balance so as to gain an advantage and thus, are not likely to be forgone easily. No, the only thing we can control here is our response.
How great would it have been if Ms. Barra had asked Matt if he were able to manage his job and still take care of his children? Or whether he felt he got his job because of his good looks instead of his journalistic abilities? Of course, she, like so many of us, probably wasn’t expecting the questions and their underlying commentary, so she answered honestly and nicely. But what that did was accept the premise of the question and made it ok to ask again. We need to stop doing that.
Instead, we need to come up with a single response we can all use; a shield to intercept the punch when it comes; something automatic and effective. How about, “Next question, please.” Or “This interview is over now.” Or try playing dumb: “I don’t understand your question.” Or what about just plain dead silence.
©2014 Kelly Watson