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Two female leaders had a historic meeting. They got asked about their age.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin responded to a reporter’s question about their respective ages on Nov. 30. (Video: Reuters)
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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin hit back after a male reporter suggested they were meeting only because they were a similar age — a question that quickly drew accusations of “casual sexism” in the media against younger, female world leaders.

The two held a news conference in Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday after their first face-to-face meeting — which Ardern described as a “historic occasion” marking the country’s first visit from a Finnish prime minister.

The two said they had discussed their countries’ responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their concerns about a crackdown on protesters in Iran. They highlighted their countries’ shared values, including “multilateralism and a rules-based international order,” Ardern said, while Marin noted that “Finland and New Zealand count among the oldest democracies in the world.”

But a reporter zoomed in on what he seemed to think was the most important thing Ardern, 42, and Marin, 37, have in common. “A lot of people will be wondering: ‘Are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and have got a lot of common stuff there — when you got into politics and stuff — or can Kiwis actually expect to see more deals between our two countries down the line?” the reporter from New Zealand radio station Newstalk ZB asked.

Ardern, looking slightly incredulous, replied: “I wonder whether or not anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Key if they met because they were of similar age,” referring to New Zealand’s former prime minister who was born five days after the former U.S. president.

“We of course have a higher proportion of men in politics, it’s reality. Because two women meet, it’s not simply because of their gender,” Ardern said. Shen then described the trade relations and economic opportunities between the two countries, adding: “It’s our job to further it, regardless of our gender.”

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Meanwhile, Marin said with a laugh: “We are meeting because we are prime ministers, of course … we have a lot of things in common, but also a lot of things where we can do much more together.” She added that, in particular, she wanted to reduce her country’s dependence on “authoritarian countries” when it came to technology and natural resources.

The question about age and gender drew criticism in local media outlets, where it was described as “not-so-subtle sexism” and “casual sexism.” The Guardian, meanwhile, soon put together a video titled: “The many times Jacinda Ardern has faced sexist questions from reporters.”

Both leaders have dealt with an inordinate amount of questioning focused on their age and gender in the past.

When Ardern became prime minister in 2017, reporters focused their questioning on whether she intended to have children or take maternity leave. After her pregnancy was announced in 2018, a reporter also focused on her appearance and asked when her baby was conceived — a line of questioning viewers criticized as “creepy.”

Women are dancing in solidarity with Finnish PM Sanna Marin

Meanwhile, Marin was heavily criticized by political opponents after videos emerged of the Finnish leader partying with her friends at a private event. Critics described her as unprofessional — even as others rallied to support her and likened it to older male politicians playing golf.

Women remain underrepresented in politics, with just 28 countries represented by elected female leaders, according to U.N. Women figures from September. “At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years,” the U.N. organization added.

In what could be a sign of the rarity of seeing two female world leaders together onstage, many of the other reporters’ questions at Wednesday’s news conference also focused on Ardern and Marin’s gender.

Reporters asked whether they had considered how to be role models for other women, whether young female leaders had to work harder to avoid criticism of their personal lives, and how Marin felt about being described as Finland’s “party prime minister” in the New Zealand press.

“It’s very good that we have free media, that we have the critical sight on politicians,” Marin said. However, she added, “I also want to show an example, that different kinds of people can be politicians. … I think it’s very important that we can also show the youngest of generations that you can be yourself and still engage in politics.”