I feel the same way The Today Show’s Matt Lauer must have when he said he was going to “tread lightly here” before he asked GM CEO Mary Barra a couple of controversial questions. I hope to fare better than he did, but am wondering if I should heed my doubts (as he should have done) and just shut up before it’s too late. But I have a point that I think is worth making, so here goes.

My initial reaction to Lauer’s questions was the same as most of the reactions I’ve seen: The questions pertained to gender role stereotypes and would not have been asked of a male CEO. Therefore, ill-advised and out of bounds.

But I took the time to listen to the full interview and transcribed the gender-related questions, which are appended below. Upon reflection, I think the case is less clear, based on two considerations:

  1. Regarding his first question (1), if there truly was, as Lauer asserted in his preamble, a lot of speculation about whether Barra got the job because she was a woman and therefore theoretically was able to project “a softer image for the company” in a time of difficulty, you could make the case that Lauer was giving Barra a chance to address an issue to which she otherwise would have no public opportunity to respond.  In the interview, Lauer said that Barra is “hugely qualified” before attributing the gender speculation to others and asking her, “Does it make sense or does it make you bristle?”  In other words, he knew the premise was insulting, and was giving her a chance to respond.  If that’s what was going on, and Barra appreciated the opportunity, it might be acceptable.  (Barra has not commented on the Lauer controversy.)
  2. Regarding the second question(2), if, as Lauer later claimed, he was equally likely to have asked the same question of a male CEO, you could make the case that work-life balance is an important issue deserving of comment by an executive leader (of either gender) who might have an interesting perspective to offer.

On balance, I still come out in the same place I did with my initial reaction. Lauer should not have asked the questions.

He should not have asked the first question about whether Barra was selected because she’s a woman because he was perpetuating an insulting premise by repeating it, and it was really impossible for Barra to knock it down effectively. After all, how can Barra really explain why she was selected? That decision was made by the GM board.

He should not have asked the second question about work-life balance, because the reality is, male CEOs actually don’t get asked the same question. He’s interviewed many of them, and it’s never, ever been asked. However, I do share Lauer’s expressed view that the second question is a valid one for both male and female executives, and it’s certainly one that I, as a man, would welcome being asked.

I feel strongly about the importance of work-life balance for everyone. I value working for employers who honor and support work-life balance, and I always try to encourage my team to make sure they spend time with their families, take their vacations, get appropriate rest, etc. (Easier said than done sometimes, as Lauer’s decision to miss his son’s birthday to interview Barra illustrates.)

I left a demanding job in government when my daughter was a baby to take an equally demanding job at IBM. The tipping point in deciding to say yes came when my prospective boss, Mary Lee Turner, asserted, “We value work-life balance at IBM. I go home at 5 p.m. and so does (CEO) John (Akers).” Don’t get me wrong. IBMers work very, very hard and often long hours. But at the U.S. Treasury, I routinely was in meetings until 10 or 11 p.m. Family life was extremely difficult.

Can you be a good CEO (or other senior executive) and still be a good mom or dad or daughter or son or partner or friend? Absolutely. In good companies that respect work-life balance, you certainly can. It’s an important topic, and the world would be a better place if journalists gave both men and women business leaders a chance to take a stand in favor of it. I hope Lauer does ask about it in his next interview of a male CEO.

At the Page Society, we believe chief communications officers should help their enterprises develop a strong corporate character that makes them worthy of trust by adopting strong values. We don’t say what those values should be – that’s up to each company to decide as it crafts its own character – but I personally put supporting work-life balance near the top of the list.

(1) Question 1: Lauer: “I want to tread lightly here, but you’ve heard this. You’ve heard it in Congress and you’ve heard it in the headlines. You got this job because you are hugely qualified. 30 years in this company, a variety of different jobs. But there are some people who are speculating that you also got this job 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 face and a softer image 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 qualifications. But we dealt with this issue. When the senior leadership of the company knew about this issue, we dealt with it as soon as we knew.”

(2) Question 2: Lauer: “You’re a mom, I mentioned, two kids. You said in an interview not long ago that your kids said they’re going to hold you accountable for one job, and that is being a mom.” 
Barra: “Correct.” 
Lauer: “Given the pressure 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. We’re doing the right things. We’re taking accountability. And, also, I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband, and I’m pretty proud of my kids the way they’re supporting me in this.”