Why Aren't Men Asked If They Can 'Have It All'?

PepsiCo's CEO Indra Nooyi generated buzz when she said women pretend they can have it all but really can't. Tell Me More's parenting panel weighs in on the latest entry in the work-life debate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about a hot topic among parents that's back in the news. Two female chief executives who are also mothers are creating buzz for their comments about balancing family and career. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi waded into the can-women-have-it-all debate proclaiming, no, we can't. And in a recent interview with NBC's "Today" show, General Motors CEO Mary Barra was asked whether she felt she could be a good mother and an executive - a good executive - at the same time. We called in some of our trusted parenting contributors to weigh in on these stories. With us now are Leslie Morgan Steiner - she's an author and mom of three. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker, recently a candidate for lieutenant governor and a mom of five. And Alicia Montgomery is a supervising editor here at TELL ME MORE and a mom of one. Thank you, ladies, for joining us.

ALICIA MONTGOMERY, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

JOLENE IVEY: A pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's start with PepsiCo's CEO Indra Nooyi. This is what she told David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company. They were having a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INDRA NOOYI: You know, you have to cope because you die with guilt. My observation, David, is that the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. When you have to have kids, you have to build your career. Just as you're rising to middle management, your kids need you because they're teenagers. And that's a time your husband becomes a teenager too. So he needs you...

(LAUGHTER)

NOOYI: I'm sorry. They need you too. So what do you do? And as you grow even more, your parents need you because they're aging. So we're screwed. (Laughing) I mean, we have no - we have no - we cannot have it all.

MARTIN: So she went on to make some other interesting sort of comments. Let me just hear from everybody on this. Leslie, how do you respond to her comments?

STEINER: Well, I think she's a perfect example of somebody who really does have it all and still has a sense of humor. And I think that the question of whether women can have it all is kind of wonderful and ridiculous at the same time. It's wonderful because it means that we have choices that many of our mothers and grandmothers didn't have, and that's great. And it's a fascinating, crazy time to be a woman in America. But it's a ridiculous question because the only way you can't have it all is if you're too strict about what it all means. And I think that motherhood turns you upside-down and inside-out. And you have to just kind of go with how crazy it is. And I think that staying home is crazy, and I think that working when you have kids is crazy in a different way. And I think that the solution, for me at least, has really been to love motherhood, and to stand up for myself, and ask for help and just hug the gorilla whenever possible.

MARTIN: Did she take you anywhere with these comments? I meant to mention that you have an MBA, also, and had a career as a business person yourself before you decided to devote yourself to writing. Did her comments take you anywhere? Did it change anything for you? Did it inspire you in any way?

STEINER: It was inspiring because she's a woman at the top of her game. You know, she's so ambitious. And she's been so successful. And she's being honest about the incredible pressures - being a daughter, a mother, a wife. And she's doing it with grace and with humor. And so I thought it was incredible. I also love that she's not putting a false front on it. She's not saying it's easy or that it's perfect.

MARTIN: Alicia, I hear - I see you nodding. What do you think? How'd you respond to her comments?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I think that it's valuable to have a successful woman actually say that because I think that if you look at women who are very successful in their careers, you don't get that way by accident. You get there by being a perfectionist, by putting in extra hours, by, you know, building your network and putting - you know, putting in long days. And you can have the expectation that once you have a child, well, you're going to do the same thing. You're going to be perfect at that, too. You're going to be at the top of your class. And children have a way of humbling you in the best way. And you have to make peace with not having perfection. And that can be a tough lesson for a lot of accomplished women.

MARTIN: Jolene, what do you think?

IVEY: I think that you have to decide what all is. And you can probably have everything if you do it in stages. But I look forward to the day when we can have these discussions with men, also, about their lives - or stop having them with women about our lives because, you know, we're all trying to do the same things. And we're all trying to do our best. And no one ever asks my husband how he manages to have it all. You know, it's not even an issue. But for me, people do feel that they can ask me how I'm able to manage, how I can balance things. I don't know, but I am. I'm just doing my best. And I hope that men are doing their best, too.

MARTIN: That leads to the other thing we - speaking of that, this whole idea of what people think they can ask women what they don't ask of men. Let's just go to that - let's just play that clip that we're talking about that got a lot of people's attention. And please don't throw anything at me 'cause I didn't - I'm just, you know, the messenger here. This is where the - Matt Lauer - NBC's Matt Lauer spoke with Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, whose obviously got a lot on her plate, too, with all these recalls and a lot of other issues that have actually gotten her called before Congress. And this is a question that he asked that's been getting some attention. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

MATT LAUER: You're a mom, I mentioned - two kids. You said in an interview not long ago that your mom - that your kids said they're going to hold you accountable for one job, and that is being a mom.

MARY BARRA: Correct.

LAUER: Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?

BARRA: You know, I think I can. I have a great team. We're on the right path. We're doing the right things. We're taking accountability. And also I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I'm pretty proud of my kids, the way they're supporting me in this.

MARTIN: So go ahead, Jolene.

IVEY: I really wish she had just flipped him the bird.

(LAUGHTER)

IVEY: I really, really do. He has got a lot of nerve asking her that. And I think that she was way too kind to him to give him a civilized response.

MARTIN: What would you have said...

IVEY: That - and there was more to that interview.

MARTIN: That we can put on the air here?

IVEY: (Laughing) Right? There was more to that interview because he also asked her - and I don't know if you were planning on playing this, but he also asked her about if she'd gotten the job because she's a woman and that she's a mother, and that kind of softens the image for the company at a difficult time. And she rejected that. And she said, no, had nothing to do about it - with me getting this job. I'm just the most qualified person. And I wish she had flipped it and said, actually, of course it helped me get this job. And thank God that sometimes being a woman is viewed as a positive thing and that there are good things about being a woman that helps a company. I wish she had said that. And the part about, you know, your role as a mother, had said, you know what? It's actually not your business, and my family's fine. Of course, she's the one who raised it as an issue in the first place in some previous interviews, saying what her kids had said to her.

MARTIN: Well, so you're saying he shouldn't have asked. I mean, it's an interesting question because I think that, you know, interviewers often debate what is OK to ask and what isn't OK to ask. But the question I have is why aren't more men asked that? I mean, why can't men be asked that, how they're balancing all this?

IVEY: Oh, they should be. I really wish, like I said, that either men would be asked the same questions or women wouldn't be asked them. That's what makes me crazy. There's such an imbalance to the whole situation.

MARTIN: Did people ask you this? I had mentioned you just came off a tough primary season where you're running for lieutenant governor.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: Did people - and your husband, previously, was an elected official.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: He was attorney general...

IVEY: State's attorney...

MARTIN: The state's attorney in the jurisdiction in which you live.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And you supported a number of his campaigns over the years.

IVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: So as well as - you are, yourself, a state lawmaker. So did people ask you - so you've seen both sides of it.

IVEY: Yes.

MARTIN: Do people ask you questions that they don't tend to ask him about how the family's doing in the midst of the campaign?

IVEY: Oh, absolutely. And the interesting thing to me is a lot of people asked me during this time, how is Glenn handling the switch? How is he handling him being behind the scenes and taking care of the home base while you're out in front? And no one asked me about that, ever. But, you know, and I always say, well, he's doing great. You know, he couldn't be better, which was absolutely true. And then they'd say, well, it's your turn. So it was nice that people kind of recognized the switch. But at the same time, I'll be glad when we don't have to recognize the switch. What if it had been the other way? What if I'd been the one who'd first been an elected official, and then my husband later took that stance? Would people be asking him, boy, how's Jolene doing being the one behind the scenes? I don't think they would. I think they expect women to take that spot graciously and to support their husbands.

MARTIN: Leslie, you wanted to say something?

STEINER: You know, I share the outrage over the questions that were asked. But I think it brings up a really pragmatic issue is that women in the workforce - we are asked these questions all the time. And in my career, I had, you know, people, interviewers and colleagues ask things like, you know - well, isn't your boyfriend paying for your business school tuition? - which, I just want to say, I paid every penny of it myself. You know, how long - it must be nice to take a maternity leave. It's such a great vacation. You know, you're - in a professional setting, you are - comments like this are lobbed at you constantly. And I think that women need to know how to answer them with grace and humor and not let it get under your skin. And it's part of why we need to talk about these issues, so that we can share really witty comebacks...

(LAUGHTER)

STEINER: Because it happens all the time.

MARTIN: Alicia, you wanted to jump in on this?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I'm torn because I'm wondering if part of why women keep getting asked these questions is nobody does what Jolene said, which is say, my family is my business, and it's not something that's open for comment on the "Today" show. And it's really regrettable that what women are sort of forced to do, in whatever arena - if you make the choice to stay at home with your children, you are sometimes - in your mom's group, eyes get rolled sometimes. Your schoolmates might say, well, you sure wasted that four years of college. If you choose to make a go of your career while you have children at home, then people say, well, you certainly are, you know, a lousy mother, or, you know, your kids - don't your kids feel neglected? Aren't they going to turn out to be, you know, psychologically damaged because you spend all this time at the office? I think that at some point, we'll know that we've made progress when women don't feel like they have to apologize for the choices that we make, and we can be - you know, we don't have to be defensive or put on the defensive by people like, you know, Matt Lauer or whomever...

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting...

MONTGOMERY: About those choices.

MARTIN: What's interesting to me is the ingenuity in that same conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival with David Bradley, talking - recounted this incident when she found out that she was going to be given this big promotion - she would become president of the company. And she went home, and her mother, who was evidently living with them, asked her to go back and get some milk - go back out and get some milk. And she'd come home earlier than she normally did, which was around 10 o'clock at night. And she said, well, you know, is my husband home? She said - and her mom says, well, he's tired. And she said, well, you know, she went out and got the milk and then was annoyed about it. And I - you know, I listen to that conversation, and I think if a man had told that conversation - she described that as a very gendered thing. Like, you're not proud of me because I'm this big, you know, big-time executive. And she said her mother said, you know, leave your crown in the garage. You know, remember when you're here, you're wife. You're mother. You're daughter. If a man had said that, he would have been - this story would have been recounted as an example of kind of his family bringing him back down to earth. And so what I wonder is why isn't it similarly seen in this context? I mean that, you know, hypothetically, let's just say, I may have shared with someone in my life, at some point, you know, just because you make more money than me doesn't mean you're more important than me. I may have said that to someone.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So why wouldn't this be another example of somebody saying, you know what? Just because you're this big-time executive doesn't mean that that's more important than what's going on in this house. By the way, you know, you sell soda and chips.

IVEY: You know, I saw that story - 'cause I thought that was a great story also. But it was her mother, who's of a different generation, telling her what her place is. If her husband, who's of her generation, had told her what her place is - well, that would've been grounds for divorce or, at least, axe murder.

MARTIN: But similarly, she said, in another - and it's the same conversation - she said her husband has sometimes said to her, look. This is your order of priorities. It's PepsiCo, PepsiCo, PepsiCo, your kids, your mom, then me.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And she said, be lucky you're on the list.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Be glad you're on the list.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: If a man had said that to a woman, would you think it was funny?

IVEY: Probably not. But I have to give her a lot of credit for telling him that at least he's on the list. So, you know, I guess...

MARTIN: But why not?

IVEY: Because women have not even been on the list for so many generations, it's nice, finally, when a woman has got the ability to come up with a nice, sharp comeback - even if it's not right.

MARTIN: To that end, though, I was going to - and if you're just joining us, we're having our weekly parenting conversation. We're talking about some hot topics that recently were brought up by two women executives at the top of their game, giving interviews and talking about their lives. We're speaking with Leslie Morgan Steiner, Jolene Ivey and Alicia Montgomery, all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. All of our regulars, except we're missing a couple - but glad that you all are here. Well, so should we be talking about this at all? I mean, I'm going to put you on the spot, now, because is this a mistake that we're even having this conversation? Leslie?

STEINER: No, of course we should be talking about it. And, you know, 10 years ago, when I was writing my book "Mommy Wars," women weren't talking about this. And men sure weren't talking about it. So I think it's great to talk about it. And I think that the issues of how hard it is to combine work and family aren't real issues for you until you actually have your first child. And I think we should be talking about it endlessly. It's a fascinating time to be a woman in this country, and we should all be digging into it. And there are lots of different opinions about it. And I think everybody should be a part of the conversation. So I think it's great to talk about it.

MARTIN: Alicia, what do you think?

MONTGOMERY: I think that yes, we should be having the conversation. And part of what gets left out of the conversation is you don't have it all by yourself. You know, all these women who are very accomplished - you can have - you have good childcare so you don't have to worry, during the day, about whether your kid's getting fed and getting attention. You have, and you know, I know that I have a very supportive workplace with coworkers who are very understanding if I have to have an obligation with my child. I've got a great extended family who, you know, picks up slack, does babysitting, gives me referrals to great doctors, great sitters, all this sort of thing. And I think that what gets disappeared in the conversation is how necessary those networks are.

MARTIN: Do you have a different perspective on this as - Alicia, as a single mom? Do you feel - is there anything that was said here that you want to sort of frame differently as a single mom?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I think that, you know, as a single mom you're sort of in the forefront of having people second-guess your choices as a mom. You know, everybody - I think that we get sort of an extra dose of the guy at the supermarket, or the person, you know, waiting for you in carpool or, you know, folks, sometimes, in your neighborhood kind of second-guessing your choices. But I think that all moms understand what it's like to have people feel free to sort of call out the most intimate relationships of your life and try to give you a grade on them on the "Today" show or on the nightly news.

MARTIN: Jolene, anything you want to add as a person who's had to parent in public?

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: As a public official, as a spouse of a public official who's - you've had to parent in public in a way that most of us don't. Any advice you want to share on that?

IVEY: Well, I mean, as far as my kids go and being in public - when we're actually in public, they know they'd better behave. So...

(LAUGHTER)

IVEY: But I really think about the women like Alicia, or others maybe not doing as well in their careers. They don't always have all those choices we're talking about. So it's great for us to be able to sit here and talk about what choices that you've made. A lot of people don't have choices. I mean, they have to go to a job they might not like that might not be supportive. And they might not have very much support at home, you know? So when I think about single moms with those kind of struggles, I really feel for them.

MARTIN: Briefly, final thought from you, Leslie?

STEINER: You know, one thing we haven't talked about is how you explain all this to your children. And I think it's important to always remember, as a mom, you know, that their kids don't see it, necessarily, the way that you do. And they don't see the big picture. So I try to tell my kids all the time how much I love being their mom. Even when it's hard, and even when it's crazy, I just try to let them know that I'm a happy mom because I think that that's - that's the most important thing to them.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author and a mom of three. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker, recent candidate for lieutenant governor and a mom of five. Alicia Montgomery's a supervising editor here at TELL ME MORE and a mom of one. And no, I did not make her make those supportive comments about the workplace.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I just want to be clear everybody knows - her choice. They were all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much.

STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

MONTGOMERY: Thanks, Michel.

IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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