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New Zealand’s charismatic new Labour Party leader, who took over in a desperate gamble to revive her struggling party seven weeks before an election, spent her first 24 hours in the job fielding questions about babies rather than her policy plans.
Jacinda Ardern, who is 37, became its youngest leader on Tuesday after her predecessor quit over “disturbing” opinion-poll results, leaving little time to plot a strategy to break the centre-right National Party’s decade-long hold on power.
That night, seven hours into her new job, Ardern appeared on the TV show The Project, whose cohost Jesse Mulligan asked whether she planned to have children.
“I’ve got a question, and we’ve been discussing today whether or not I’m allowed to ask it,” Mulligan said, glancing at his female cohost Kanoa Lloyd, who laughed uncomfortably and rolled her eyes.
“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 . . . so is that a decision you feel you have to make or that you feel you’ve already made?”
Ardern, who is only the second woman to lead New Zealand Labour, has spoken candidly about being wary of taking on senior leadership roles, including the prime ministership, because of the strain it can place on family and home life.
She responded politely: “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.” Ardern added that she did not regard her “dilemma” as any different from that of other women juggling multiple priorities and responsibilities.
On Wednesday morning, however, the opposition leader bristled at The AM Show’s cohost Mark Richardson after he said New Zealanders had a right to know whether there was a possibility that their potential prime minister might take maternity leave.
“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?” Richardson asked.
Ardern, visibly angry, defended women’s right to keep their child-bearing plans private from their employer, a position upheld by the New Zealand law.
“I decided to talk about it, it was my choice, so that means I am happy to keep responding to those questions,” said Ardern, who has in the past expressed the desire to have a family.
“But, you,” she said, turning to face Richardson and pointing her finger at him, “it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is unacceptable. It is unacceptable.”
Richardson’s cohost Amanda Gillies applauded as Ardern went on: “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”
The exchange and repeated questioning of Ardern about her plans for children sparked debate within New Zealand and accusations of sexism.
Many commentators noted that the media never asked young male political leaders how they would balance a political and family life, although the former prime minister Helen Clark often was.
“Just watched Mark Richardson show his rage, his sexism, his lack of self-awareness,” tweeted the columnist Rachel Stewart.
“It’s not cricket, dude”.
“If you’re wondering why the reaction to Jacinda Ardern baby q, it’s b/c NZ women have been reminded they’re baby makers first and foremost,” tweeted the journalist Frances Cook.
Others were similarly unimpressed, calling the questions faced by Ardern misogynistic.
New Zealand’s equal-employment opportunities commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue, also weighed in, in a frank opinion piece for the Spinoff website.
“Male hosts of two TV3 shows made it very clear to their audiences that they would desperately like to know what Jacinda’s intentions for her womb were,” Blue wrote.
“Quite frankly, whether a woman intends on having children or not, is none of their bloody business. Oh, and by the way, it’s illegal to ask those questions.”
In an opinion piece for the website Stuff.co.nz titled “No, we don’t need to hear about Jacinda Ardern’s baby plans. Ever”, Kylie Klein Nixon wrote of the prime minister: “Bill English literally has six kids, and no one cares.”
© Guardian, Reuters