“I am not a fan of that phrase,” “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell said when she was asked the perennial question, “Can women have it all?”
Though it's a cliche, the "having it all" issue is an inevitable one, because O'Donnell has secured the first television interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive whose new book Lean In has captivated the attention of the media and of women across the country. The interview will air on Sunday's "60 Minutes" — O'Donnell's first-ever time on the prestigious show.
Sandberg's thesis — that women are unintentionally holding themselves back in the workplace — has been met with a wave of criticism from those who argue that the COO is elitist or even blaming women instead of institutionalized sexism. Others have defended Sandberg as a staunch feminist and said the book is well worth reading.
In the "60 Minutes" profile, Sandberg pushes back at her critics. “My message is not one of blaming women. There is an awful lot we don’t control,” she says. “There is an awful lot we can control and we can do for ourselves to sit at more tables, raise more hands.”
Profiling Sandberg for “60 Minutes” was a project “long in the works,” O’Donnell told The Huffington Post during an interview at the CBS News headquarters on Thursday. When she joined CBS News as a White House correspondent in the summer of 2011, the network announced that she would also serve as the substitute host to Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” and a contributor to “60 Minutes.” Within the first couple of months of her arrival, O’Donnell pitched a number of stories to the newsmagazine, including a profile on Sandberg.
“They said, ‘Great. Sounds like a great story, but see if you can get the interview,” O’Donnell said. She approached Sandberg as the company was preparing to launch its IPO, but Facebook did not want to speak to the press at the time. “I had no idea that she had a book coming out,” O’Donnell said of the time she first approached Sandberg. But the exclusive interview surrounding her book release came as a result of her initial request a year and a half ago.
O’Donnell described Sandberg’s Lean In as a “sort of feminism 2.0 moment.” She added, “I think Sheryl is delivering a pretty blunt message that is, ‘The revolution has stalled.’ And that’s a message I don’t think people want to hear … I think her take is that it’s not just sexism anymore. It’s an ambition gap when it comes to women who want to lead. And I think that's a really profound argument.”
O’Donnell mentioned research that Sandberg discusses as well – that women have been getting more college degrees than men for 30 years, but make up just barely over 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
When asked where the glass ceiling exists in her own industry, O’Donnell pointed to the executive suite and roles behind the camera. “I still think we’re waiting for a women president of a news organization, so there’s a glass ceiling there. And I think there can be more parity in terms of women in executive positions, whether that's in management or in production,” she said. NBC, where O'Donnell previously worked for 12 years, happens to have an opening. Longtime NBC News president Steve Capus announced his departure earlier this year and the network has not yet named his replacement.
There's a certain sense of irony about this moment for O'Donnell. Her story on Sandberg about factors preventing women from excelling in the workplace is the very interview that will introduce her to audiences on what many industry professionals consider the most coveted of all broadcast news programs. “It was one of the things that when I was making a decision about my next career move, I really wanted to do ‘60 Minutes,’” O’Donnell said. “So that has long been a dream, that was part of my decision to come to [CBS] two years ago.”
CBS News chairman Jeff Fager “promises” that audiences will see O’Donnell on “60 Minutes” again. “She has all the right skills to be successful with us, and mostly because she’s a real reporter who knows how to do interviews," he said. "That’s why you will see her again on 60 Minutes, and why she’s such an important part of 'CBS This Morning' every single day.”
After spending a year as the network’s White House correspondent, O’Donnell was named co-host of “CBS This Morning” alongside Charlie Rose and Gayle King. Though the show has far fewer hosts than its direct competitors, the program boasts the best gender ratio of all the morning shows—2:1. Ratings for the 14-month-old show are also up double digits in both total viewers and the 25-54 age demographic compared to last year’s February sweeps, just one month after the show launched with Rose, King and O'Donnell's predecessor, Erica Hill.
CBS has gone through multiple revamps of morning shows in recent years and has long been in third place behind NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “GMA.” But the broadcast and cable morning show landscape has been hit with major changes since O’Donnell joined “CBS This Morning” in August 2012. "GMA" has gained a newfound dominance over "Today" and CNN is in the process of re-launching its morning show yet again.
“Every minute counts,” executive producer Chris Licht, who also serves as CBS News’ vice president of programming, said. “People are sampling different shows more than ever, so we treat every segment and every guest as an opportunity to grab – or lose—a viewer.”
O'Donnell's interview with Sandberg could be one of those opportunities, as the book sparks what O'Donnell described as an at-times polarizing but necessary conversation. “Everybody has an opinion on this subject and it’s usually a strong opinion about women in the workplace, how to balance work and family, how women are treated in the workplace,” she said. “And people have fierce opinions on both sides of this ... There will be a lot of strong reactions.”
Work-life balance is a topic O’Donnell knows very well. She spoke candidly about feeling “embarrassed” that she had another child 13 months after having twins. She said she worried about being the “pregnant lady at work” and missing out on any opportunities. Instead, O’Donnell worked throughout her pregnancy and covered the 2008 Democratic primary.
“I was on set all day and at midnight [I was told] Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann … were tired and wanted to go home. So then the pregnant lady stayed on until 2 in the morning,” O’Donnell laughed.
She returned to work to cover the Democratic convention seven weeks after her third child was born. "I didn't want to miss out on any opportunities," she said. "So I think there was kind of a sense of guilt about that, but I don't have that anymore."
With a morning show and "60 Minutes" debut around the corner, the mother of three said she's not a fan of the "having it all" phrase because it boxes women in. "I think it sets up that there’s this singular 'Having It All' [and] that everybody has to fit into that ‘Having It All’ box," she said. "I think everybody should have a different sense of what success is."
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more