The media playbook for managing a crisis the size of General Motors' neverending recall drama calls for running both offense and defense. That was surely the thinking of why General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra sat down with the Today show and Matt Lauer for a live interview this morning (live being a format that draws viewers but also limits how much pressure a questioner can bring). Yet the news from the interview wasn't so much Barra's defense, but Lauer's question about being both a mother and a CEO — and the offense several viewers took.
Yes, Barra is the first woman CEO of a major automaker, an industry dominated by men. And Barra does often talk in interviews about her home life and her two children. But even though she's worked at GM her entire adult life in a variety of engineering and corporate jobs, her promotion still drew fire from critics who questioned whether she was qualified enough — and when the recall debacle broke, so did the conspiracy theories that Barra had been "set up" to fail.
The idea that a woman was somehow naive in accepting a promotion to CEO has its own deeply sexist roots, let alone that suspecting shadowy GM execs of masterminding a Machiavellian power play contradicts all we know about a company so bureaucratic it had its own body language for shirking responsibity. But Lauer would have been guilty of journalism malpractice if he hadn't asked about the controversy today.
LAUER: I want to tread lightly here. You’ve heard this, you heard it in Congress. You got this job because you’re hugely qualified, 30 years in this company a variety of diferent jobs. But 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?
BARRA: Well it's absolutely not true. I believe I was selected for this job based on my qualificiations. We dealt with this issue — when the senior leadership of this company knew about this issue, we dealt with this issue.
It was the follow-up question where things went a little off:
Lauer: 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: Correct. (smiling)
Lauer: Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?
Barra: You know, I think I can. I have a great team, we're on the right path...I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I'm pretty proud of the way my kids are supporting me in this.
That struck several Today viewers (a largely female audience) as one query too far — putting Barra on the spot for a question that's rarely if ever asked of a male CEO in the auto industry or anywhere else:
@MLauer Can't believe you just ask Barra if she can do her job and be a good mom! Would you have asked Iacocca this?— Jill Salvi (@JKSalvi) June 26, 2014
For the record: All previous GM CEOs that I've known had children. In my 15 years of covering the industry, I can recall only a couple of occasions where they were ever asked how they balanced the roles of father and executive; it was more often them who brought it up in small talk about what was going on in their lives outside the company.
The truth is the head of GM belongs to the company, in body if not in spirit. An enterprise with 200,000 employees and plants in dozens of countries can absorb every waking second of a CEO's attention and still thirst for more. It's not Matt Lauer's fault that previous chief executives were measured by yardsticks other than being a good parent. What's grinding here is the notion that in the midst of a crisis linked to 13 deaths and 20 million recalled vehicles, Barra should be reminded that she can't shirk her parenting because she's a mom and not a dad.
Barra to date has shown more attentiveness to GM's deep-seated problems in the past few months than, say, one of her predecessors who took a weekday off to go fishing in Canada. Exploring Barra's family and parenting style seems like a topic that can wait for a time when the country's largest automaker isn't issuing a recall every few days. Besides, what's more stereotypically motherly than having to clean up other people's messes?
UPDATE: Lauer offered an explanation for the question on Facebook, citing Barra's previous comments on work-life balance: "If a man had publicly said something similar after accepting a high-level job, I would have asked him exactly the same thing."