Jacinda Ardern and, beside her, deputy Kelvin Davis, with members of the NZ Labour caucus
Is it sexist to ask a youngish woman, in the running for prime minister, whether having a baby is on the cards?
Journalists who asked New Zealand’s new Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern, about her family aspirations caused a media kerfuffle last week.
Barely seven weeks out from a general election, Labour swapped its uninspiring, middle-aged, male leader, Andrew Little, for a just-turned-37 woman with a big smile and lots of energy.
A woman who has been involved in politics since her teens and seems to have every intention of staying there, but is as yet unmarried (though cohabiting) and childless, yet who in the recent past has spoken about her desire to have children.
Naturally, everyone wants to know, for one reason or another.Breakfast show host Mark Richardson said it was imperative that she answer the question whether it is “okay for a PM to take maternity leave while in office”.
Ardern, who has rolled with media questions about her personal life before, in her new capacity as political woman of the hour went in to bat for her sisters: she pointed at Richardson and said it was “totally unacceptable” to say a woman should have to answer that question in the workplace.
“It is a woman's decision about when they choose to have children, it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job, or have job opportunities.”
Richardson defended his statement: employers should know so they could plan for a year’s leave; he wasn’t saying not to employ a person for that reason; and yes, he would ask a man if he was likely to have kids in the future.
Well, it’s just a little bit different when a man becomes a parent. (Unless it’s a transgender “man”. That could be on the cards too, and Labour would be gung-ho with that.)
Anyway, the Human Rights Commissioner (female) said such questions breached the Human Rights Act; Westpac bank’s CEO (male) said it was “appalling that in 2017 one of the first questions asked of a new leader who is female is about her plans regarding having children.” (Would making it the ninth or tenth be OK?) And Prime Minister Bill English, father of six, said it was a private matter.
For herself, Ardern accepts that she has already put her personal story in the public domain, although that was in a former life when she had no ambition to be party leader. She understands that people will be wondering, but she doesn’t know the answer herself right now.
So the answer to the opening question is, not really. And even if the question were sexist coming from a journalist, the issue itself could remain in contention for Ardern herself.
In some ways she is a typical young woman. Brought up a Mormon, she gave all that away as a young adult and calls herself an agnostic. A late Generation X-er, she grew up in the decades when, arguably, the career imperative for women was strongest – and politics still had some coherence. She lives with her partner (Clarke Gayford, a broadcasting personality and fishing and diving enthusiast) and when asked in an interview a year ago whether they would marry, she replied, “Why don't you call him and ask him?” Her biological clock is ticking.
She is believable when she says she envisaged a career in politics without the complications of leadership, and when she talks about now having to “grapple” with her acceptance and what that will do to the “balance” of her life. As more famous career women have found, the reality of a very demanding job tends to demolish myths about having it all.
Much as one would like to enthuse about the prospect of a pregnant and nursing – and, hopefully, married — prime minister, and the benign effects on the national psyche, it does seem a very tall order for the woman herself, not to mention the baby if she were to take only short leave and return to work. Longer leave would, surely, undermine her leadership both of the country and the party.
All this, of course, begs the question of how Ardern and Labour will do in the imminent election. Being the leader of the opposition in parliament would be somewhat less strenuous than the top job in politics – if she remained party leader after not delivering a win.
Perhaps failure would be the kindest solution at this point for Jacinda Ardern, the woman. In political terms she is still young, and a less demanding role while she follows the mother-track for a few years could see her rise to the top again with important insights into an area of New Zealand life that is crying out for attention: the family.