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Sexism row in New Zealand after party leader is told public has right to know her parenthood plans

Jacinda Ardern said the line of questioning from an interviewer was “totally unacceptable”.

People have leapt to the defence of Labour leader Jacinda Ardern after the line of questioning taken in interviews.
People have leapt to the defence of Labour leader Jacinda Ardern after the line of questioning taken in interviews.
Image: RNZ Live News/Youtube

NEW ZEALAND’S FRESHLY installed opposition leader Jacinda Ardern was drawn into a sexism row today after being asked if having a baby would affect her chances of becoming prime minister.

The questioning has provoked a strong reaction in the country, with human rights commissioners, political commentators and Ardern’s own main rival in the upcoming election leaping to her defence.

Just one day into her new job with the centre-left Labour Party, the 37-year-old had already been asked twice in separate interviews about whether she intended to become a parent.

Ardern responded graciously to the initial line of questioning with a non-committal answer, saying it was a dilemma lots of career women faced.

“I’m not pre-determining any of that, just like most of the women out here who just make their lives work,” she told national news network TV3.

But she took exception when told on the same network that New Zealanders had a right to know her plans for parenthood before they decided whether or not to vote for her as prime minister.

Ardern said women should be employed on their qualifications, regardless of their future family plans.

“It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace,” she said.

It is the woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not pre-determine whether or not they get the job.

The grilling by cricketer-turned-TV host Mark Richardson lit up social media, with many commentators saying a man would not face similar questioning.

“Quite frankly, whether a woman intends on having children or not is none of their bloody business,” New Zealand human rights commissioner Jackie Blue said.

Oh, and by the way, it’s illegal to ask those questions as they breach the Human Rights Act.

‘Retrograde debate’

Even Prime Minister Bill English, who Ardern hopes to oust in the 23 September election, leapt to her defence.

“People who are out in the public eye, I think, benefit from a bit of support rather than questions that are really only about their private business,” the father-of-six told reporters.

A poll on the New Zealand Herald website quickly attracted more than 9,000 responses, with 65% backing Ardern.

Madeleine Holden, a commentator on pop culture website thespinoff.co.nz, said it was a “retrograde debate” that shifted the focus from Ardern’s policies.

“Asking Ardern about her plans to have children implicitly reinforces the sexist notion that a woman’s primary role is motherhood, no matter how accomplished she is in other areas,” she wrote.

However, Heather McCarron a self-described “freelance journalist and mother-of-two”, said Ardern raised the issue herself earlier this year when she spoke about being torn between her political career and wanting a family.

“Most new mothers take time off, which in itself would be an issue when you’re in such a prominent role. How would she balance the job with meeting the needs of a child?” McCarron wrote on Newshub.

If I’m wondering all this, you can bet others – voters – are too.

Ardern assumed the leadership from Andrew Little yesterday after polling showed Labour was heading for a disaster in next month’s election.

She will attempt to prevent English winning a fourth term for the centre-right National Party-led coalition.

Earlier this year, an Australian senator attempted to make a point about sexism in the workplace when she became the first woman to breastfeed a baby in the nation’s parliament.

“Sometimes it’s difficult not to get disheartened by the sexism women still face in the workplace,” Larissa Waters said. “But sometimes it pays to look back and see how far we have come.”

With reporting from Sean Murray

- © AFP, 2017

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