June 26, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Critics decry NBC question: Can Mary Barra be good mom and GM CEO?

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, shown here testifying before Congress in April, told Matt Lauer Thursday on the 'Today' show she was chosen for the job for her qualifications, not to be a 'softer face' on the recall crisis. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

NBC “Today Show” host Matt Lauer came under harsh criticism Thursday for asking General Motors CEO Mary Barra if she can be a good chief executive and mother at the same time.

“You’re a mom, I mentioned, two kids. You said in an interview not long ago that your kids told you they’re going to hold you accountable for one job and that is being a mom,” Lauer said in a live interview at GM’s Detroit headquarters at the Renaissance Center. “Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?”

Barra — the first woman to run a major automaker — said she could. “You know, I think I can. I have a great team, we’re on the right path. ... I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I’m pretty proud of the way my kids are supporting me in this,” she said.

Many on social media sites questioned if Lauer would have posed the same question to a male CEO.

“Seriously, boo on @MLauer for asking a woman CEO if she can do the job bc she’s a mom; don’t remember him asking any dads if they can do job,” Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said on Twitter. “My suggestion: Maybe working moms should stop watching @MLauer .”

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In fact, Laurer had a similar interview with Toyota U.S. chief Jim Lentz in February 2010 about the Japanese automaker’s recall crisis then, and made no mention of Lentz’s family. During a 2009 interview with Ford CEO Alan Mulally, he didn’t ask about Mulally’s fatherhood.

Time Magazine, BuzzFeed, Politico, Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, Yahoo News, Jalopnik and the Huffington Post were among the outlets to cover the question, which largely overshadowed the interview on GM’s recall crisis.

Charlotte Alter at Time asked: “How’s this for a question: Can Matt Lauer be a good dad and host the Today Show? Let’s discuss.” Think Progress called it “super sexist.”

In a Facebook post, Lauer defended the question and said he would ask it of a male CEO. “A couple weeks ago, we did a series on ‘Modern Dads’ and the challenges of fatherhood today. Work-life balance was one of our focuses. It’s an important topic, one that I’m familiar with personally, and I hope we can continue the discussion,” Lauer said.

Lauer cited a Forbes profile of Barra in which she said: “My kids told me the one job they are going to hold me accountable for is mom.”

Lauer said that Barra had just accepted the job as the first female CEO of a major American automotive company, “and in the article she said that she felt horrible when she missed her son’s junior prom. It’s an issue almost any parent including myself can relate to. If a man had publicly said something similar after accepting a high-level job, I would have asked him exactly the same thing.”

Peggy Schaffer? on Twitter wrote: “Hey @mlauer and @TODAYshow You owe Mary Barra and every working woman an apology. #womanwork #youreajerk #jointhiscentury #orangeroom.” Another user asked, “Could this stuff please stop.”

Lauer also asked if there was a conspiracy by GM and its board in December to put her in place. “You got this job because you’re hugely qualified, 30 years in this company, a variety of different jobs. But some people are speculating that you also got this job because as a woman and as a mom because people within General Motors knew this company was in for a very tough time and as a woman and a mom you could present a softer image and softer face for this company as it goes through this horrible episode. Does it make sense or does it make you bristle?” he asked.

Former GM CEO Dan Akerson and Barra both have said they didn’t know of the issue in December when she was named to the job. “Well, it’s absolutely not true,” Barra told Lauer. “I believe I was selected for this job based on my qualifications. We dealt with this issue — when the senior leadership of this company knew about this issue, we dealt with this issue.”

A spokeswoman for the Today Show didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com