Efforts to slay the work-life balance dragons are finally center stage—studies, books, and powerful women have made it a buzzy cause du jour. But that doesn’t mean every single woman with a corporate success story should be expected to discuss this issue at length, especially in contexts meant to highlight their career accomplishments.
Such was the unfortunate case at the Dreamforce Women’s Innovation Panel held recently in San Francisco, where O Magazine editor-at-large and CBS morning anchor Gayle King interviewed Honest Company CEO Jessica Alba and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, ostensibly to discuss career highlights. Only that’s not really how it went.
Writing at The Next Web, Lauren Hockenson notes that rather than focus on these women’s impressive accomplishments—both oversee billion-dollar enterprises—King softballed them with mommy talk, turning what should have been a look at their career trajectories into “a complete farce.”
Wojcicki’s story, specifically among women in tech, is one of the greats. As Google employee 16 and the initial source for the company’s Menlo Park headquarters (she legendarily offered up her garage to founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page), she rose through the ranks deftly and is now the only female CEO in the Alphabet umbrella. She oversees YouTube’s multi-billion dollar business and has a net worth of more than $300 million.
“Susan, you know something about babies,” King said during the panel. “This is what I love about Susan: she has five children.”
Wojcicki smiled, and confirmed King’s statement. When pressed, Wojcicki said that her eldest is turning 16, while her youngest is 8 months.
“By the same husband?” King inquired.
15 minutes into the panel, and Gayle King had asked one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley if all of her children have the same father.
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King then asked Alba about her career in Hollywood, which the writer contrasts with appearances during the conference from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who were given ample space to demonstrate products and discuss philanthropic efforts. None were asked about family.
“Alba and Wojcicki fielded questions about maternity leave, how they remain in their families’ lives, and whether they could invent a stylish shoe that doesn’t hurt your feet at the end of the day,” Hockenson writes. “Innovation, indeed.”
Or maybe the questions asked of Alba and Wojcicki are fair game. Blake Morgan, a contributor at Forbes who works in tech and also attended the event, defended the atmosphere of the panel as lighthearted and King’s interviewing style as “down to earth,” noting that Wojcicki wasn’t offended by the questions, so maybe we shouldn’t be, either. She writes:
While King’s questions might not be the same questions posed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella or Uber CEO Travis Kalanick who also spoke at the event, it doesn’t bother me. I am 31 years old and I’m personally facing some major life decisions about having children and how that will effect my ability to build my own business. I walked out of that room thinking, jeez if Susan Wojcicki had five children and managed to be CEO of YouTube, I should probably stop worrying so much about how children will hinder by ability to work.
These two points of view—insulting vs. inspirational—illustrate the growing pains of taking “women’s issues” front and center. One the one hand, the fact that we can discuss the how women juggle work and family demands, and the many obstacles to success they still face, is a sign of significant progress.
On the other hand, this can become a kind of pink ghetto, like when an actress is asked what she’s wearing instead of her thoughts on the film, when women in music are highlighted in a separate issue just for women, when a politician must prove she’s capable of finger-on-the-nuke buttons while managing a period.
It’s also worth noting that plenty of high powered women have made these issues a significant aspect of their brand and career. By discussing their own struggles and solutions to the demands of work and life, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg give scores of women, at least the ladder-climbing sort, a roadmap. So long as women are still doing the lion’s share of the domestic and childrearing work while navigating a career, how they manage it is still a fascinating and relevant question—but that doesn’t mean it should overshadow focus on their work lives.
Facebook exec Margaret Stewart Gould puts it more bluntly in a post for USA Today. She attended another tech conference recently, Fortune Brainstorm in Apsen, where Wojcicki also spoke. Gould expected insight into YouTube monetization; instead, the interviewer scored applause when mentioning Wojcicki’s role as a mother and the recent birth of her fifth child. Gould writes:
It was like all the air got sucked out of the room. He must be joking, I thought. All the other stuff she’s done, that’s not worthy of applause? The conversation proceeded to detail all of her pregnancies and how they coincided with major projects she’d led. He then asked the question that seemingly every woman leader — but apparently no man — is required to answer:
How do you do it all?
For what it’s worth, running YouTube and having five children is pretty impressive—and I for one would like to know how she manages it, even if it’s simply a lot of great paid help. But Gould’s point is still salient—when do women simply get to be badass executives who don’t have to pull back the curtain of their private lives as the price of admission? Must women still be softened in this particular way in order to seem relatable?
I am so sick of this. Being a parent is hard. Executive jobs are hard. We all know this. And parents need a lot of support and advice on how to achieve all they are capable of work-wise but still be there for their families. If I am asked to serve on a panel that’s explicitly about this topic, I can decide whether or not I want to participate in that conversation. But when the venue is a tech conference, let’s talk about tech, for goodness sake. Making motherhood a required topic for women leaders minimizes their contributions to the industry.
Gould isn’t just complaining, though; she offers a slew of ideas for change, mostly aimed at media. One, PR folks could get out in front of the story and ask that the private lives of the women they represent not dominate the discussion. Second, hiring interviewers with a better tech background for these panels could ensure a more relevant discussion. And third, journalists should always, always do their homework rather than focus on easy, shallow questions that do nothing to illustrate a woman’s accomplishments.
But perhaps Gould’s last solution is the best—be an equal opportunity invader of privacy:
As I see it, you have two choices: you can either ask everyone these questions about their private lives and their role as a parent, or you should ask no one. I have a challenge for you: in the next three interviews you do with male leaders, please ask them the same questions you seem so blasé about asking women. How do you balance caring for your kids and your work responsibilities? Did you feel your career was hurt by taking time off with your babies? Do you feel like working makes you a better/worse parent? If you try this three times, you are going to learn something.
She’s right—not only would this help audiences to understand more about how women succeed in spite of the odds, but it also gives us an insight into the unique problems men face. Which, by the way, is what the powerful women who do make work-life balance their life’s work say already. It’s time the rest of us caught on.
Image via CBS/The Good Wife.