Besides being irrelevant, the questions reveal a stark double standard for women in politics.
On Tuesday, 37-year-old Minister of Parliament Jacinda Ardern was elected the new leader of New Zealand’s Labour opposition party, becoming the youngest person and the second-ever woman to hold the role.
She’ll lead the party as it heads into a general election in September, but some of the questions Ardern has received since her appointment have focused not on the upcoming contest, but on her personal plans to become a mother.
Hours into her leadership tenure, Ardern appeared on a current affairs television show called The Project and host Jesse Mulligan asked, “A lot of women in New Zealand feel they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career … is that a choice that you feel you have to make or already made?”
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Ardern had previously talked publicly about how she’s carefully considered her political career given her desire for children. “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 told Mulligan.
“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,” she said.
But Ardern’s response was more heated when she was asked about the matter again on Wednesday morning.
A host of The AM Show, Mark Richardson, said New Zealanders had the right to know when choosing a prime minister whether that person might take maternity leave. He said: “If you are the employer of a company you need to know that type of thing from the woman you are employing… the question is, is it OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?”
That drew a sharp reply from Ardern, who pointed out that it’s illegal for employers to take a women’s childbearing plans into account when making hiring decisions:
The queries about Ardern’s plans for children have sparked an intense sexism debate in the country as commentators argue that a male politician would never be asked such a question and that Ardern’s desire to have kids—or to not have them, for that matter—doesn’t determine how well she does her job.
“I mean, I clearly recall the time [Prime Minister] Bill English was asked how he was going to balance the national books and his hectic home life … oh wait, no I don’t, because it never happened,” wrote Kylie Klein Nixon for Stuff.co.nz. “Bill English literally has six kids, and no one cares.”
Besides being irrelevant to Ardern’s job qualifications, the questions about a potential pregnancy also reveal a stark double standard, since female politicians without children are judged just as harshly for it.
In Australia, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was regularly criticized for not having children, with a conservative senator once saying she was “deliberately barren.”
During the race to replace former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, former Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom appeared to suggest she was more qualified to become prime minister than Theresa May because she has children—and May doesn’t. “Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country,” Leadsom said in an interview. (May had previously said that she and her husband could not have children.)
In 2015, the New Statesman ran a cover story with an image of May, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.K. Labour MP Liz Kendall standing around a crib with a ballot box in the center. The headline read: “The motherhood trap. Why are so many successful women childless?”
Sturgeon, for her part, opened up about not having kids last year, revealing for the first time that she had a miscarriage at the age of 40 in 2011. She said it “not an easy decision” to go public about such a “painful experience,” and later tweeted that she hoped her disclosure would help break the taboo of miscarriage and stop the judgment of women who don’t have children.
For women who do end up having kids, there are—of course—physical demands that only apply to women. But two female politicians recently proved that those responsibilities aren’t incompatible with leadership either.
MP Unnur Bra Konradsdottir of Iceland and former Australian Senator Larissa Waters both breastfed while delivering speeches in their respective parliaments. Afterward, Konradsdottir downplayed her multitasking.
“It’s like any job,” she told told Agence France-Presse, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”