Susan Wojcicki is the CEO of YouTube. She also used to lead Google's advertising business. It's a good bet that she has some interesting things to say about technology, user experience, data-driven marketing, and social media, among other things.
Yet when she appeared onstage at Fortune Brainstorm, the interviewer began the session by noting that Wojcicki had five kids.
This sort of thing drives women in technology absolutely nuts. It drives me nuts. It drives Margaret Gould Stewart, director of product design for Facebook, especially nuts. She recently wrote an excellent piece for USA Today explaining just why. Here's the crux of her argument:
"If I am asked to serve on a panel that's explicitly about [work-life balance], 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."
I agree with her entirely. Watch the clip of Wojcicki's interview, and you'll see that the interviewer uses the timeline of Wojcicki's pregnancies to also mark milestones in her career. In the clip, he suggests that this format was partly of Wojcicki's making. Still, can you imagine this happening to a guy?
Sometimes a transgression isn't all that obvious. This is been much on my mind because on Thursday, I'll be interviewing five very accomplished women at Inc.'s Women's Summit. Obviously, this is an Inc. event, so this is about business. But the Women's Summit is also about being a woman in business, which is a very different thing.
I won't be asking anyone about their families tomorrow. Four of the women I'll interview will be on a panel about financing your business, and I fail to see what babies have to do with that. The other, InDinero founder Jessica Mah, does not have children.
But at last year's Women's Summit, I definitely wrestled with this. I had an hour onstage to interview Eileen Fisher. At least 95 percent of the audience was going to be women. (You tell me if that should matter.) Was I not going to ask Fisher anything about how her personal life meshed with her business? After all, Fisher's PR people had assured me Fisher was willing to talk about just that. What about at Inc.'s GrowCo event, where I was on stage with Cara and Theo Goldin, the wife-and-husband team who run Hint Water.
I've especially hesitated to ask personal questions of people onstage because of a running conversation I've had with Amy Millman. She's the co-founder and president of Springboard Enterprises, which coaches women entrepreneurs on raising venture capital. Go to a conference on startups, she says, and all the guys will be talking about negotiating term sheets while the women will be in the breakout session on work-life balance. It's a ridiculous discrepancy, she says. Is it any wonder that female CEOs get less than three percent of venture capital?
But from my point of view as an interviewer, it's a bit more complicated. If Millman is right, then obviously, women really do want to be talking about work-life balance. Otherwise, they'd be in the other room talking about term sheets. So if women want to hear about work-life balance, shouldn't the interviewer find a way to ask about it?
In the end, I did ask Eileen Fisher about raising a young child while building her company. She talked about how hard it was and got teary-eyed. I thought I'd made a horrible mistake.
Until. After the event, Fisher and her PR people thanked me for a wonderful interview--and I've been fake-thanked enough times to know they were sincere. Apparently the other parts of our onstage conversation-- about topics including leadership, design inspiration, and sustainable businesses--outweighed anything that might have been a bit uncomfortable.
A number of women in the audience also thanked me for bringing up the issue. I told one of them that I'd hesitated, and recounted Millman's argument. The audience member shook her head. "Anyone can hire a laywer to walk them through a term sheet," she snapped. "That's easy. But there is no one who can tell you how to run a startup without getting divorced."
Men and "Having it All"
In her USA Today piece, Stewart also notes that moderators don't ask men about how they "do it all." Here, an increasing member of stage-worthy guys seem to be helping the cause. Indeed, near the end of Fortune Brainstorm, Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, and his brother Ari Emmauel, co-ceo of talent agency William Morris Endeavor, were interviewed by the same person who'd interviewed Wojcicki.
At the end of that session, Rahm Emmanuel offered this: "Can I say one thing? You know, I watched your interview with the CEO of YouTube. You know your first four questions to her were about her children and you didn't ask either of us about our kids?" Here, the audience applauds, and the men onstage actually joke about whether or not this makes the interviewer a "sexist pig." (The guys can joke all they want. We know what the women in the audience were thinking). Rahm continues: "If you want to get to know Ari and me, we could spend until four in the morning talking about our kids."
Stewart says interviewers have two choices: Ask everyone, male and female, about their kids, or ask no one. This is totally reasonable and fair, and we should do it. But I've asked men about work-life balance, and let me tell you, it is not pretty.
About a year ago, I had the bright idea to write a series for Inc.com about entrepreneurs and work-life balance. The idea was that I would interview a wide range of entrepreneurs and basically just ask them how they managed. I'd do an equal number of interviews with women and men. I figured everyone would learn from it.
The first few interviews I did with the women went well. They talked about improving communications with their spouses, managing nannies and babysitters, and setting expectations among employees, business partners, and investors.
Then I interviewed the guys. It took me longer to set up the interviews with them, but they knew in advance that the interviews were going to be about work-life balance. When I asked about homework and nannies and bedtimes, here's what all three of the men told me: "I am so lucky. My wife takes care of all that."
That was the end of my wonderful series on work-life balance.
So, no, I will absolutely not be asking any of my panelists about their families tomorrow. As Stewart pointed out, context is everything. No one wants to hear about kids if they expect the discussion to be about financing your company. Let's also not forget that some questions are always out-of-line, such as when Wojcicki, again, was asked onstage at Salesforce Dreamforce if all five of her children have the same father!
But if you were to give me a good chunk of time with an entrepreneur, and it's agreed that the interview will be wide-ranging, I might ask about work-life balance, or the lack of it. Starting a company takes a ridiculous amount of time and energy; so does raising kids. And there are plenty of entrepreneurs who do a great job at both and feel zero guilt about it.
My bet is that Jessica Herrin, founder and CEO of Stella & Dot, will mention this in her keynote at Inc.'s Women's Summit on Thursday. In some cases, I think it helps everyone in the audience to hear these stories: Yes, you can be crazy successful and have a rewarding personal life. You can absolutely start and scale a company, as Herrin has, and be an awesome role model to your kids. We hear way, way too much about mom-guilt; I get inspired when I hear Herrin say she's crushing it at work and she's crushing it at home, too. Good for her, good for all of us! If she can do it, we can do it.
In the right context, I think questions about work and life are worth asking. I have ocassionally asked them, and I'll continue to. But not just of women. I'll ask guys these questions, too. I hope that soon, I'll get a better answer than, "My wife does that."