Rikleen Institute LLC

The Today Show's Matt Lauer Interview with Mary Barra Reveals a Gender - and Generation Gap

June 27, 2014

The Today Show's Matt Lauer Interview with Mary Barra Reveals a Gender - and Generation Gap

This blog post originally appeared on LinkedIn. To view the full post, click here.

Watching Matt Lauer interview General Motors CEO Mary Barra, I waited for the inevitable question about whether she was selected to lead the company because of her gender. For months, commentators have speculated that GM’s Board chose Barra in the hope that, as a woman, she could soften the company’s image as it faced public anger at a corporate culture seemingly impervious to the safety of those who drove the automobiles it manufactured.

So it was not a surprise when Lauer asked that particular question. The shocker, however, came with the follow-up question about whether Barra could be both a good CEO and a good mom. I felt my own gasp in response to the question was likely part of a collective reaction around the country, and the day’s Twitter commentary proved that to be true.

My initial anger at a question never, ever asked of a man in a leadership role gave way to sadness at what the question revealed. Most significantly, it demonstrated how little progress we have made as a country in meaningfully addressing the work-family challenges that women and men face in the United States. Rather than an outcry over the fact that the question was asked of a woman CEO, I wish the outcry focused on the need for all men and women in leadership roles to speak openly and directly about work-family challenges.

Ironically, the week drawing to an end with Matt Lauer asking a corporate executive whether she can effectively run a company and be a good mom began with a White House Summit on working families. At that event, the President and Vice-President of the United States spoke poignantly about their roles as dads and as leaders, and other high-profile speakers throughout the day identified how America lags behind other countries in supporting families in the workplace.

We need to talk about these issues more, not less. But they must be addressed with the understanding that this is no longer a woman’s issue alone. And for proof, we need look no further than the next, and very large, generation now flooding the workplace.

The Today Show interview revealed a significant generation, as well as gender, gap. In my new book, You Raised Us – Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, I cite to abundant research demonstrating that both young men and women entering the workplace today are highly focused on how they will meet their work-life challenges. Millennials fully expect that they will be part of a dual-income household in which family responsibilities will be shared and workplace obligations will be met. Young men and women are questioning how they can succeed in their careers and as parents, and they are speaking openly about their concerns long before they begin to raise a family.

We continue to suffer from a legacy workplace culture based on a model that no longer exists. But it will only change when all corporate executives speak openly about their work-family experiences, as well as their roles in helping families in their organizations find the flexibility they need to meet their parenting challenges.

The data is clear and compelling. Workers are more engaged and function better as employees when they have proper child care available and when they can attend to family needs appropriately. And workplace leaders have a responsibility to model behavior that demonstrates respect for the very critical societal need to parent well.

Nothing less than our children’s future is at stake. So Matt, keep asking the questions - as long as you include every man you interview in the conversation.