Jacinda Ardern sworn in as Prime Minister last October. via Wikimedia Commons

Any day now New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, may give birth to her first child, due on June 17. Back in 1990, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was the first prime minister to have a child while in office; Ardern is only the second.

Bhutto, according to her son, “had her [second] baby in secret and was back at work the next day.” Ardern will take six weeks (unpaid) leave and then get back to full time work. If the baby does not arrive on time she will not be kept waiting: “Induced, yep. Out,” she told a morning talk show host this week. In another interview she said she was “desperate to demonstrate that I’m not going to let the country down.”

While Ardern shows us that becoming a mother is not incompatible with running a country, albeit a small one, her partner, Clarke Gayford, will demonstrate that becoming a stay-at-home father (SAHF) is not below the dignity of a red-blooded, outdoorsy man with his own television show.

Together, this very 21st century couple (they happen to be unmarried also) provide a celebrity model of gender roles that is cheering to those who see traditional parental roles as the last barrier to income equality between the sexes.

Children and the gender pay gap

Releasing New Zealand research on this subject a few weeks ago economists Isabelle Sin and Gail Pacheco styled Gayford’s role as a SAHF “an example”, and highlighted the fact that “parenthood” (“motherhood” would have served quite well under the circumstances, but evokes sexual difference in an unwelcome way) generally “contributes to the gender pay gap.”

They continued: “It penalises all women, particularly those who are on high incomes, and sets them on a trajectory of lower lifetime earnings relative to their male peers.”

New studies using data from egalitarian welfare states Denmark and Sweden confirm the so-called “child penalty” for mothers – an earnings gap that cannot be explained by differences such as education, occupation and sector (private or public).

Using Danish state registry data Henrik Jacobsen Kleven and colleagues find that although the gap between men and women’s earnings has narrowed over the past few decades there remains a gap of around 20 percent over all in favour of men, and most of this is due to children. Most women who become mothers adjust their participation in the labour market in various ways to care for their children and the home.

And it is not just women in middling skilled jobs – who have less to lose from stepping off the career track than those higher up the professional scale – who adapt their work life to motherhood. A study of Swedish business or economics graduates born between 1960 and 1970 found that, although they started work on an equal footing, a substantial wage gap opened up as they aged and became parents.

The Swedish study suggests that women who planned to become mothers organised their careers and choice of firms to work for around that goal. They tended to move into larger, family friendly firms, while men maximised their earnings by working for smaller, higher-paying firms.

Stay-at-home dads – a new norm?

In New Zealand, the gender pay gap has fallen below 10 percent – a level low enough to satisfy ordinary mortals, one would think, but not equality absolutists like Sin and Pacheco. They will not be satisfied “until it is just as common for a dad to stay home with the kids as it is for a mum.”

There is some encouragement for them in a Pew Research Center report published ahead of Father’s Day (in the US). It notes:

The number of fathers who do not work outside the home has risen markedly in recent years, up to 2 million in 2012.1 High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family.

However, these American dads who are at home specifically to look after their children are still a tiny group. According to Pew, they are less than a quarter (23 percent) of all at-home fathers, who in turn account for 16 percent of all at-home parents – that is, less than 4 percent of all at-home parents. Just 5 percent of families (with children under 18) have only the mother in employment.

Things may be a bit different elsewhere. You will find headlines like, “Sweden, land of the stay-home dad” online, although this is largely about the country’s parental leave system. The Scandinavian paradise offers 480 days of parental leave per child (paid at about 80 percent of salary) which can be shared between mothers and fathers as they see fit – except for three use-it-or-lose-it months tagged for each parent. Although this has been available for decades uptake has been slow and fathers last year claimed less than 30 percent of parental leave. Perhaps it would be good if they claimed more.

Why the gap remains

So what, after 50 years of feminism and rising tides in female education and employment, accounts for the fact that the great majority of young children are still being cared primarily by their mothers? Is it perhaps something to do with (evil) patriarchal culture?

According to the Danish study it is more likely to do with matriarchal culture. The researchers found that women’s preference for family care over work is “strongly related to the work history of maternal grandparents” and the “female gender identity formed during [the woman’s] childhood.”

In other words, when it comes to decisions about how to manage motherhood and paid work, family influences prevail over ideological trends for most women. Even if it was the patriarchy that shaped the youthful experience of 21st century mothers, feminism and material forces combined have not been powerful enough to drive the majority to put their three- or six-month or even year-old babies in daycare and get back to full time work. So far.

None of this will surprise people who have not lost their reason while working in the academy or as policy wonks. It is eminently reasonable and, in a sense, necessary for the mother to nurture her newborn and hover over him for the first three years, while the father maintains and improves his earnings to support the family.

Certainly, fathers should be encouraged and enabled to spend more time with their children and generally do more home work. It may even be better in some circumstances for the father to stay at home and the mother to work full time. But to promote a 50-50 share of child care between parents – even at a whole society level — as a desirable norm ignores not only what most women (and men) actually want, but also what is good for each member of the family, especially the children. It comes from denying the significance of innate differences between the sexes – an idea that today’s social engineers hate.

Our Prime Minister doesn’t necessarily go along with such nonsense, although she has said that she and Clarke Gayford want to be good role models as parents. But becoming pregnant soon after entering the stakes for New Zealand’s top job has made Jacinda Ardern’s life very complicated.

Reportedly, there will be no full-time nanny. Her partner, after six weeks, will be carer-in-chief. Gayford is used to going on deep sea fishing safaris for his TV show, Fish of the Day, the third season of which is scheduled for the southern summer. Whether it goes ahead, he told The Guardian, depends on baby. “Parents will have to be called on for favours,” the paper reports. “The couple will have to travel a lot, and he will probably move to Wellington [the seat of government] for a while with the child.”

One can only wish the couple good luck with their parenting plan. As for their being role models, one hopes that few other new parents would find themselves in such a demanding and potentially stressful situation. A baby would normally do best with a full-time mother, and the evidence suggests most women recognise that.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet