This Facebook Exec. Wants Women To Be Known For Their Brains, Not Their Baby-Making Status

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Ladies, don’t you hate it when people make assumptions about your life and career based on the fact that you are a mom? And men, you must be soooooo tired of people asking you sexist questions about schedules and abilities simply because you are a parent, right? Oh wait… that second question was meant for women…

Although it is 2015 and we are STILL discussing the ways women are treated differently in the workplace because they happen to be parents, we’ve started to realize that the continual discussion is good. Eventually, the rest of society will catch up and recognize, asking the CEO of a car manufacturer about whether she has the ability to do her job and be a mom is not acceptable. And asking a female celebrity about how she balances being an A-list Hollywood actresses with looking after her kids, while her equally famous A-list actor husband never gets asked anything of the sort, is simply beyond outrageous.

And we aren’t the only people to think so, either. In a recent article for USA Today, Facebook executive Margaret Gould Stewart, who is the Director of Product Design, wrote an awesome post about how sick to death she is of having women’s baby-making status given a front seat in every discussion when it comes to interviews with women in leadership. She is specifically addressing the tech industry since that is her area of expertise (Margaret previously served as Director of User Experience at YouTube. Prior to that, she spent two years leading Search and Consumer Products UX at Google).

Her article starts off by explaining her uterus has nothing to do with her decision-making abilities, her brain does.

“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?'” asks Margaret.

Just because women in leadership is more of a prominence in society than ever before, it’s not as if the work/life balance is a new phenomenon. For centuries women have been balancing many aspects of their lives, as have men, so frankly let’s change the conversation to something a little more interesting.

The reason for Margaret’s passionate article was because of her experience at a recent large tech conference in Aspen, Colorado, where tech luminaries such as Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki were guest speakers.

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“Susan has one of the most celebrated careers in tech, and I was excited to hear her talk about her vision for YouTube, a product I worked on for a number of years and still care deeply about. She also happened to lead Google’s advertising business for years. This woman is a pro. So I was expecting some exciting insights into how she thinks about the industry, how YouTube’s monetization efforts will evolve, etc,” said Margaret.

Unfortunately, what unfolded was something vastly different. Margaret describes how the interviewer on stage decided to set the tone from the beginning by focusing on the fact that she has 5 kids. Yikes! In fact he positioned each of her major projects and career achievements alongside each of her pregnancies, which led to the inevitable question of how she managed to “do it all?”

“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,” expressed Margaret, as she shared a link to the video so people can watch the exchange for themselves.

She also pointed out another subtle way the conference wasn’t exactly woman friendly, by including only men’s products in the swag bag given to each attendee.

“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!”

There was a redeeming point at this particular conference, however, which came during an interview with Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, and his brother Ari Emanuel, a renowned talent agent. The particular interviewer happened to be the same guy who asked Susan Wojcicki the question about balance, and Rahm brilliantly used his time on stage to point out the blatant hypocrisy of this issue.

“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 one of us about our kids?… If you want to get to know Ari and me, we could spend until four in the morning talking about our kids.”

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Clearly he was not impressed with the way Susan was singled out for that line of questioning for her gender, and Margaret felt it sent a great message to have another guy point out why it was ridiculous.

But there was more to come. At another tech conference, Susan Wojcicki was once again a featured highlight in a session titled ‘Women’s Innovation Panel’ which also included actress and businesswoman Jessica Alba. For those not in the know, her Honest Company which sells organic baby products is estimated to be worth a cool $1 billion.

At this event, the interviewer was a woman (Gayle King, no less!), but as Margaret explains, it didn’t seem to make a scrap of difference.

“Instead, it focused extensively on parental leave policies and included such comments as, ‘Susan, you know something about babies’, a question about whether Wojcicki had all five of her children with the same husband (!), and a compliment on how great Alba looks in a bikini,” she writes, once again sharing the video link so that people can see the exchange for themselves.

“The interviewer had very little understanding of technology and didn’t seem to be prepared to dig into the amazing things these two women have accomplished in their careers. These are just two examples of many wasted opportunities to learn from women leaders,” added Margaret.

The Facebook executive points to an article on The Next Web which also tore apart this particular interview. Titled ‘Dreamforce’s Women’s Innovation panel is why we should stop babying female CEOs’, Lauren Hockenson called out this trend of questioning, saying it is a subtle way to discriminate against working women.

“Too often, these panels are grandstanding dog and pony shows, designed to trot out successful women and demean them by asking them, ‘How do you do it all?’ as if they are crazy for pursuing their careers as their male cohorts would.

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Lauren went on to say how shameful it is that Salesforce, a company that recently made a lot of noise in the press for CEO Marc Benioff’s decision to re-evaluate all of his employees’ salaries in order to ensure women get paid the same as men for doing the same job, would relegate brilliant women in the tech and business space to a somewhat patronizing panel run by a woman who openly admitted she knows nothing about tech, while people like Marc Benioff and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella each got to speak about their respective company’s innovative projects.

“If Salesforce wants to open the door and have earnest discussions of how female executives run their businesses and grow them successfully, then it needs to stop taking cues from outdated stereotypes about what a female audience wants to hear from these events,” she said.

Margaret openly admitted she is sick of it, and says everyone knows being a parent is tough, as is being an executive. But there needs to be a massive re-evaluation, industry-wide, of how women are treated.

“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.”

She points to examples elsewhere in society which have enabled the shaming of mothers as leaders, as well as women in general, to become normal. The example of Donald Trump making fun of certain women’s appearances or natural bodily functions simply because they asked him a tough question during a presidential debate should not be tolerated, yet the giddy media headlines and share-happy social media generation makes it easy for the world to think we are approving of this behavior.

Margaret’s call-to-action is for every leader in every industry to do their part to dismantle stereotypes around women in leadership.

“We need to become attuned to how the portrayal of women in the media impacts how we assess people, whether it’s in business or politics or any other industry. Let’s start by making sure that we first and foremost value what’s in people’s brains and hearts and resume instead of focusing on damaging stereotypical gender roles. The same holds true for biases against people of color, attitudes about age, sexual orientation, etc. I have never met anyone who has not walked away humbled by the results,” she said.

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If it’s statistics that will convince anyone that there needs to be a change and that discrimination does indeed impact the amount of diverse representation we have in industries such as tech, all you need to do is look at any “Diversity Report” released by major tech companies over the past couple of years and see how the representation of women and minorities caps out at 30%.

Margaret ends her very timely yet intelligently-worded rant with a 4 point plan that she believes will effectively work against repeat incidents like that of the “Women’s Innovation Panel” at the Salesforce conference.

1. PR people need to ensure that attendees and conference organizers are clear that female executives are only there to talk about work.

2. Conference organizers need to select interviewers based on their knowledge of a topic in order to best represent their guests: “If you were planning a one-on-one interview with Bill Gates, would you choose someone who had intimate knowledge of Gates’s professional accomplishments and the technology he cares most deeply about? Of course you would! Please show the same respect for women.”

3. Journalists and interviewers should focus only on the work of women and do your homework. However, if you are going to ask about parenting and personal ask everyone, or ask no one.

4. And finally, women in leadership positions should be better at shutting down these conversations and not engaging in discussions that don’t elevate their work.

“For the community of women in leadership roles and the many more who aspire to them, we need to say no. Because making them feel proud of and empowered by their talents and accomplishments is the only way we will get more women on the stage in the first place,” she concludes.

Our bet is that the more men and women in the workforce are united on this issue, the more we will see advancement in the closing of the wage gap, the end to gender bias, and perhaps even better family leave policies implemented so that everyone who is still stuck in a 1950s mindset can finally see that being a good parent isn’t limited to one gender. More importantly, the younger generation of women who are yet to enter the workforce can have a chance to live in a world where they are valued for their brains, not their bodies, their looks or their baby-making abilities.

In the meantime, to check out Margaret’s brilliant brain in action, you can watch both of her TED Talks by clicking here.

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