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Oh baby! The question keeps coming up

Wednesday 2nd August 2017

Should Jacinda Ardern be asked about her plans to have kids? 

 

 

Jacinda Ardern in her first appearance in Parliament as new Labour leader.
Jacinda Ardern in her first appearance in Parliament as new Labour leader.

Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

Yesterday Jacinda Ardern, who has been in politics for nine years, became leader of the Labour Party.

In less than eight weeks, she will lead the opposition into the General Election.

But since she took the job, she has been asked repeatedly about whether she plans to have children. 

If such questions were put to a woman at a job interview, the employer could be in breach of the Human Rights Act, a lawyer says. 

***

Last night, on The Project, host Jesse Mulligan asked Ardern: 

“I’ve got a question, and we’ve been discussing whether we’ve been allowed to ask it or not… A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career or continuing their career at a certain point in their lives - late thirties… Is that a decision you feel you have to make?” 

Ardern, 37, thanked Mulligan for reminding the New Zealand public of her age, ahead of answering his question. 

On the AM Show today, she repeated what she said to Mulligan last night:

“I totally accept that I will be asked that question, because I chose to be honest about it… I decided to talk about it, it was my choice, so that means I’m happy to keep responding to those questions.” 

When the question was asked of her, she did not find it inappropriate, she told the show’s co-host Duncan Garner. 

“But you,” she said, pointing her index finger across the desk to Richardson. 

“...It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women 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 or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.” 

Richardson countered that he believed it was unfair for an employer not to know what a woman’s parental plans were.

This morning on TV3, a presenter was somehow able to share his thoughts on the status of Ardern [and women in general’s] wombs. 

Mark Richardson said he thought it was OK for a male employer to ask a woman if she had pregnancy plans in a job interview. 

He thought it was ok, he said on the show, because it would give said potential employer time to plan for said potential employee to take leave. 

***

To ask such a question is in breach of the Human Rights Act, says lawyer Mai Chen. 

“Employers who are asking questions which are not focussed on the person’s skills and ability to do the job are likely to be found in breach on the ground of non-discrimination on the basis of sex, but also the ground of non-discrimination on the basis of family status. It might also be age, it might also be marital status, it depends on what sorts of questions you are asking.

“The critical thing is that we shouldn’t be stereotyping people.”

Chen said if an employer was to ask a person such a question in a job interview, and the person did not get the job, there would be the opportunity to complain to the Human Rights Commission.

“At the end of the day you need to make a decision about an employee on the basis of whether or not they’re the best person for the job. The reality is men and women take parental leave - that’s what the Act is all about. Good employers understand that that’s just part of the lifecycle and they learn to sort it out with their employees.”

***

National candidate Nicola Willis gets asked about her family situation all the time. 

“In the first interview I had when I was selected as National’s candidate in Wellington Central, one of the first questions I was asked was how I was going to manage childcare arrangements,” she said. 

But she believed that as long as the questions were being asked of both male and female politicians, it was OK. “People are generally interested in the family arrangements that people have because they're looking at the representative as the whole person.”

In Parliament as an advisor to John Key, Willis saw the former Prime Minister being asked questions of how he balanced his life and managed time away from his kids.

In terms of asking personal questions as a way of judging whether a person is right for a job, she says it’s not appropriate or relevant. 

“But at the same time, when you’re a politician, public figure, you’re up for all questions.”

***

Retired Judge Josephine Bouchier thinks Ardern’s parenthood plans are nobody’s business but her own. 

“She’s a politician, she’s in Parliament, she’s taken on a job, her party thinks she can do it, she obviously thinks she can do it. 

“Why is everybody suddenly asking her if or when she’s gonna have children? I think it’s a jolly cheek.”

It’s been about 26 years since Bouchier, who became a judge aged 35, was the first serving member of the judiciary to take maternity leave while on the bench.  

Today, she says she is “staggered” by the media and public’s focus on Ardern’s parenthood plans. 

***

Golriz Ghahraman, a Greens candidate and lawyer, says the question of parenthood is something she - and other women - are asked about constantly. 

She says it undermines experience and qualifications. 

“I think the thing that feels really oppressive and urgent about this narrative for me is that we’re essentially telling our girls that opportunity and democracy are limited for them.” 

Ghahraman said the question was never asked of men. 

When former ACT politician Deborah Coddington reviewed Holly Walker’s book on parenthood in politics, she shared it on social media and tagged Ghahraman two other Greens candidates - Chloe Swarbrick and Hayley Holt. She did not tag candidate John Hart, who has two preschoolers at home. 

Ghahraman says there should be a conversation about women having children and a career, but not in its current form. 

“The way that it’s being dealt with in terms of just focusing it back on Jacinda … she’s the leader of the opposition, we’re eight weeks out from an election, and if she were a man she would be asked about her vision for the country, her party’s policies, its stability. All these questions are being asked but they’re being undermined by this really personal question which is to do with the fact that she’s not a man.

“The conversation should happen, but it should involve men and women and it should be separate from politics.”

***

ACT leader David Seymour says he has been asked about his marital status, and whether he plans to have children - in fact he was asked about both those things by a journalist on Sunday, he says. 

“I think it’s inappropriate, frankly. I think we should be judged on how hard we work and what sort of policies we put forward.” 

Despite this, he engaged with the question at the weekend, somewhat. 

“I said I would like to have kids but I’m committed to parliament for now. It’s probably a different question, as a guy, I don’t have quite the same time constraints… for biological reasons … Sometimes I just laugh it off and I say ‘you’ve got to be kidding, I’m married to Parliament.”

***

Here is a transcript of Jacinda Ardern’s chat with Mark Richardson this morning, which came after Duncan Garner asked if it was OK to ask women about baby plans: 

Jacinda Ardern - “As I said last night, I totally accept that I will be asked that question, because I chose to be honest about it, I think a lot of women face this dilemma in the workplace, no matter what their profession or job might be - they might be someone who’s on part time work, working multiple jobs, or they might be on a career ladder - they face this issue all the time, I’m not on my own there. I decided to talk about it, it was my choice, so that means I’m happy to keep responding to those questions.” 

Duncan Garner - “You don’t find it's an inappropriate question?” 

JA - “For me, no, because I opened myself up to it. But you [points to Mark Richardson] - for other women it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is unacceptable in 2017. It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.” 

Mark Richardson - “I just think it’s unfair for an employer if he’s got someone there in front of him and he wants to employ them, he wants to give them the job, he needs to know at some stage down the line he may need to have to allow in his organisation for that person to take a leave… [interrupted by everyone talking at once, including Amanda Gillies pointing out that Richardson is assuming the prospective employer is male then Garner telling her to stop talking] … I’m not saying don’t employ that person…” 

JA - “Then why ask?” 

MR - “Look at our last esteemed leaver, she set this show up absolutely beautifully, we knew she’d have to leave, she got things in place, she’d be welcome back any time she wants and I’m sure this organisation had to allow for that - it’s nice to know in advance…” 

JA - “If you’re asking the question at the time you’re making a decision around employment, you’re implying it’s going to have an impact as to whether you choose to employ that person or not. That is what I’m saying is unacceptable. It should not predetermine whether or not someone has a job opportunity.” 

MR - “You’re saying that I would therefore that would prejuddize my decision…” 

JA - “Why would you ask if it wasn’t going to prejudice your decision?”  

MR - “Because you might desperately want that person because they’re going to be a great employee you need to be able to prepare in advance. Everyone needs to prepare in advance.” 

JA - “Let’s just think that through a little - would you ask a man whether or not they’re likely to have kids in the future and whether or not they’d have shared responsibilities?” 

MR - “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

DG - “Mark, Jacinda, I am gonna jump in here and say that I have never asked a male political leader - in 20 years of asking politicians questions - that question. Time to move on.”

JA - [Gives Mark Richardson the thumbs up] “Good debate.”

[Moves on to talking about politics]
[Mark Richardson folds arms] 



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Susan Strongman is an Auckland-based journalist at The Wireless. She is interested in social issues, human rights and people, but likes to spend her spare time with her cats.
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