We should ask female CEOs about motherhood—when it’s news

Susan Wojcicki, YouTube, Brandcast
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: CEO of Youtube Susan Wojcicki speaks at YouTube #Brandcast presented by Google at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on April 29, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic for YouTube)
Photograph by Stephen Lovekin—FilmMagic/Getty Images

I too have a uterus. Which is partly why I read, with great interest, Margaret Gould Stewart’s recent essay on whether or not we should be asking female business leaders about motherhood. The other reason I was so curious? I co-chair the tech conference that Gould Stewart references as one of two examples of the “many wasted opportunities to learn from women leaders.” (The second example: A female-only panel at last week’s Dreamforce confab hosted by the software company Salesforce.com, which I didn’t attend and therefore won’t address in this article.)

Gould Stewart, a product design director at Facebook, raises many valid points in her piece. But some of the conclusions she draws from one particular session at Fortune’s Brainstorm TECH conference, the event I co-chair, could have been given more context. Gould Stewart’s main argument: that an opening question posed during an interview with Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, minimized her role in the industry because it brought up the fact that she had recently given birth to her fifth child. (The inquiry, in a nutshell, was how the longtime Google exec manages running a multi-billion-dollar business and a family with five children.) My take? The question was perfectly appropriate for several reasons.

My Fortune co-chairs and I are in the news business—relevance and timeliness are what we strive for, both in stories and on stage. And this question, in my opinion, had a bit of both.

Adam Lashinsky, the Fortune editor and co-chair who interviewed Wojcicki at the conference, knew that the Google exec had talked openly about her pregnancies and argued for more generous maternity leave policies in the past. She even penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the topic. So the subject of running a company while raising a family was clearly something relevant to who Wojcicki is as a leader—no, not because she is a woman but because she had taken a public stance on the issue before. Also, she had recently had her fifth child. Again, this was noteworthy not because she is a woman but because it was timely. And, let’s face it, it’s not just that most CEOs don’t have five children; most people don’t have five children.

As one of my other colleagues, senior editor Jennifer Reingold, pointed out: “Should I ever get to interview Elon Musk again, I would like to ask him the same question.” (Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is also a parent to five children.)

Gould Stewart doesn’t necessarily say that we should never ask female leaders about their family lives—she asserts that if we do so, we should ask the same questions of men. I agree. And, while I don’t see eye to eye with some of her conclusions on the Wojcicki interview at Brainstorm TECH, I wholeheartedly believe that we as journalists can do better when it comes to covering women leaders both on and off stage. (Continuing the dialogue is a good place to start, which is why I reached out to both Gould Stewart and Wojcicki—neither could be reached for comment.)

There will be room for improvement for years to come: With just 23 female CEOs on the Fortune 500, it’s clear that the business world has still not yet fully adjusted to the presence of women. But we at Fortune take the responsibility to highlight female leaders very seriously, which is why 17 years ago we started the Most Powerful Women list and MPW Summit. We will continue to make progress, and we will continue to ask questions—of both women and men.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital