By Claire Zillman
August 3, 2017

On Tuesday, 37-year-old MP 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.

Yet mere hours into her tenure in the high-profile job, the questions asked of her focused not on an upcoming general election, but on her personal plans to become a mother.

Initially, Ardern—who doesn’t have children but has expressed a desire for them—entertained a TV host’s query about having to choose between “having babies and having a career” since she’d discussed the topic before.

“[M]y 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 her response was more heated, when—for second time in as many days—she was asked about her future childbearing plans.

“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 okay for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?” another host asked yesterday.

Ardern unloaded:

“I elected to talk about it, it was my choice … but for other women it is totally unacceptable in 2017 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 they should have a job or be given job opportunities.”

Commentators in New Zealand decried the line of questioning as sexist. As Stuff.co.nz‘s Kylie Klein Nixon put it: “[New Zealand PM] Bill English literally has six kids, and no one cares.”

Besides being irrelevant to Ardern’s job qualifications, the questions about her future childbearing reveal a stark double standard, since female politicians without children are judged just as harshly for it.

Australia’s former PM 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. PM 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.

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 Agence France-Presse, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

 

@clairezillman

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