Would you ask a male CEO how his fatherhood would affect his career? Unlikely.
Women who appear to have overcome the pitfalls of sexism and gender bias through their success and advancement are not exempt from being subjected to it.
When people—who are also female—are in positions of power, pressure, and a high level of responsibility, especially within a corporate structure, their sheer womanness tends to be interrogated. If they’re also mothers, suddenly their maternity is scrutinized. The fact of their being a parent is not a biographical footnote, but a central characteristic that seems at odds with the aforementioned—power, pressure, responsibility.
The Today Show’s Matt Lauer interviewed General Motors CEO Mary Barra and, unsurprisingly, brought the conversation around to the inevitable: that seeming contradiction of being a high-powered corporate CEO and a mom at the same time. As a starting point, Lauer mentions that Barra recently stated in an interview that her kids hold her accountable for one job—being a mom.
The fact that she—guilty as charged—mentioned her children and identity as a mother was, evidently, enough license to pursue the topic. Lauer is quoted as asking of work and motherhood, “Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?”
It’s not unthinkable that a male CEO, who is also a father, may be asked about his personal life. But I sincerely doubt a male CEO’s fatherhood would be suggested as a potential barrier to success on either score—paternity impacting his ability to run a company, or running a company impacting his ability to be a good, devoted dad.
Is this because society is less concerned about fathers? Are we not worried about men being good dads as well as running companies because we assume there’s a good mom in there somewhere picking up the slack?
Emphasizing the responsibility of a woman to be a good mother, while ignoring men’s responsibility as fathers, is gender essentialism at its worst. It also gives no credit to men. Barra specifically mentions her supportive husband. Is it surprising that the father might be an equal or even primary parent?
Lauer took the gender-biased questions a step further, raising the topic of speculation that Barra was promoted to the job so GM could “present a softer image and softer face for this company” and step in as a maternal figure.
Do you think men get promoted to top jobs primarily to act as pseudo-fathers to a company of unruly children? Goes General Motors need a maternal figure at the helm in order to be successful? The head of a huge corporation is not your mom surrogate just because she’s a woman.
Recently, Canada’s minister of justice Peter MacKay said that fewer women than men are appointed as judges because they’re busy being moms and afraid to be away from their children. He also suggested that mothers have a greater bond with their children than fathers. The lack of female judges couldn’t have anything to do with sexism and the glass ceiling—nope, just plain old biology and essential male and female differences.
When we essentialize people based on gender we make gender oppression seem normal. Why is a female CEO not just a CEO who happens to be a woman? Why is she a woman first and a CEO second, in the eyes of the mainstream media?
Women in the workforce aren’t new, and neither are women in power. Don’t treat them as trespassers and, especially, don’t treat them as delinquent mothers for daring to have a career.
Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.