On Tuesday, 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern was elected leader of New Zealand's Labour Party. It's a powerful position, and she's the youngest person to hold the job. (Also, only the second woman.)
Just hours later, Ardern appeared on “The Project,” a current affairs show. Host Jesse Mulligan had an opportunity to ask about affordable housing or immigration, major issues in the upcoming election for prime minister.
Instead, he wondered: Did Ardern feel she had to choose between advancing in her career and having children?
“I've got a question, and we've been discussing today whether or not I'm allowed to ask it,” Mulligan said. “A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career, and continuing their career at a certain point in their lives, their late 30s. Is that a decision you feel you have to make or feel you’ve already made?”
Ardern has talked in the past about how wanting children has shaped her professional choices, and she replied graciously. “I have no problem with you asking me that question because I have been very open about discussing that dilemma because I think probably lots of women face it,” she said. “For me, my position is no different to the woman who works three jobs or who might be in a position where they are juggling lots of responsibilities.”
The next morning, “AM Show” host Mark Richardson pushed on the matter, with a slightly different angle.
Voters, he suggested, have the right to know whether a potential prime minister might need to take maternity leave. “If you are the employer of a company, you need to know that type of thing from the woman you are employing … is it okay for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?” Richardson asked.
The question, framed that way, riled Ardern. It is illegal for employers in New Zealand to ask job candidates whether they're pregnant or considering children. You can't discriminate against someone because of their family status.
“It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is unacceptable, it is unacceptable,” Ardern said. “It is a woman's decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”
It's worth noting, too, that Prime Minister Bill English has never been asked about his family planning.
The questions have sparked a backlash in New Zealand, the first country to give women the right to vote. Today, the island nation has one of the lowest gender wage gaps in the world, along with a powerful legal framework against gender discrimination.
An opinion piece by Michelle Duff pointed out that former Australian leader Julia Gillard's decision not to have children was used to suggest that she's unemotional and lacking in empathy. Questions about motherhood are “sexist, stupid, and irrelevant to how well she can do the job,” Duff wrote.
Jackie Blue, who runs the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, wrote on Spinoff:
Male hosts … made it very clear to their audiences that they would desperately like to know what Jacinda’s intentions for her womb were. One even suggested that all women should be asked the question when applying for a role. And therein lies the problem. Because quite frankly, whether a woman intends on having children or not, is none of their bloody business. Oh, and by the way, it’s illegal to ask those questions as they breach the Human Rights Act.
Even English jumped in, saying the questioning was unacceptable. “Some degree of personal intrusion” can be expected in politics, he said, but Ardern's motherhood plans are “her private business.”
When asked about the dust-up, former prime minister Helen Clark, the first female Labour leader, offered some succinct advice:
Ignore the sexist attack is & get on with the job.
— Helen Clark (@HelenClarkNZ) August 2, 2017