No, It's Not Sexist To Ask Successful Women About Their Work/Life Balance.

| SEP 29, 2015 | 2:38 PM
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...but it became “sexist” this year, apparently, if you ask Facebook's Director of Product Design Margaret Gould Stewart. In a column published in USA Today, she writes:

So why is it that when women get up on stage at tech conferences, the conversation so often turns to child-rearing, pregnancy, and “work/life balance?”

It's consistently a hot topic because 4-plus decades after the “we can do it all” women's liberation movement, women still want to know from other women how they juggle work and home responsibilities, so they can be informed and draw their own conclusions as to how to perhaps better manage their own hectic lives - or decide if it's even the type of life they want.

This baffles Stewart, who went on to express shock and outrage as to the initial questions asked of one prominent female speaker:

A few months ago, I attended Fortune Brainstorm, a tech conference in Aspen with an impressive lineup of speakers, including my former colleague Susan Wojcicki, who currently serves as CEO of YouTube.

[...] The interviewer started off by saying:

“So, you have some superlative numbers associated with you. For example, you were employee number 16 of Google. That’s pretty impressive… But the number that I want to share with all of you that is truly extraordinary about Susan is the number five. Because not so very long ago, Susan just had her fifth child. And I think that’s worthy of applause.”

The questioner then had the audacity to ask Wojcicki the awful question of how she managed to do it all, which again didn't sit well with Stewart, who continues:

You can watch it for yourself in this video. The first four minutes of a 21-minute interview with the person some call the most influential woman in the industry was focused on parenting and pregnancy. Sigh.

What Stewart doesn't tell you in her piece is how Wojcicki has openly talked about her family and the difficulties of balancing work and life, a topic she discussed at length in a piece advocating paid maternity leave back in December 2014. Naturally, she's going to be asked the work/life balance question. Eighty percent of the discussion was about work and 20% was about work/life balance. Sounds about right.

Next, Stewart - who believes that asking women about the demands of motherhood and work equates to perpetuating “damaging stereotypical gender roles” - recounts in horror what the contents of the gift bags being given away at the conference included:

Things continued to go downhill when I looked inside my conference gift bag, given to all attendees. It included  —  and I am not making this up  —  men’s underwear, a men’s Birch Box sample kit, and men’s toilet wipes. Way to make me feel at home!

A photo was also posted at the USA Today that seemingly backed up her insinuation - which is that the conference catered to male attendees and not the female attendees. One thing she didn't mention - perhaps out of ignorance - was that giftbags given out at the conference also contained items expressly for female attendees:

Stewart went on to complain about another recent conference where Wojcicki also attended, along with actress Jessica Alba, and again complained about a similar line of questioning, even though Alba, too, has talked about balancing life as a working mom and has a company that expressly caters to mothers of infant children. and talks on her website about how she considers being a mother her most important role.

If asking such questions of women at these conferences is not the appropriate time to inquire, when is it? When women bump into them on the street? At the coffee shop? Yes, according to Stewart:

It might be a bit awkward at first, but it’s worth it to just say: “You know, I’d love to get coffee afterwards with anyone  —  man or woman  —  who wants to talk about raising kids while working full time, but right now I think the audience really wants to hear about how I’m leading a revolution in robotics.”

The Margaret Gould Stewarts of the world might bump into such notable busy and in-demand public figures on an hourly basis, but most women don't. It's fascinating that in 2015 there are women arguing that other women who have previously expressed strong opinions on mothers in the workplace shouldn't be asked about them in settings where they're more likely to be heard by large audiences - and furthermore - that it's somehow “sexist,” insulting, and diminishing to women's accomplishments to bring up the issue as part of a broader conversation.

It's called “expanding the discussion,” and it's something with which Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is quite familiar. Perhaps it's a question Stewart should ask of senior management sometime - but only at the corner coffee shop, of course.

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