When New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern announced her pregnancy she was happy, but steely.
“We are going to make this work,” she declared, adding: “New Zealand is going to help us raise our first child.”
In turn, Jacinda is going to help many women in New Zealand – nay, the world – crack the baby/boss dilemma. She’ll be a walking answer to questions such as, “Can you go for a top job and have a family? Could you? Should you?”
These questions are posed in part by women, who have internalised narratives that suggest women with children are not committed or focused – even though research has shown that women with children can be more productive than peers.
The doubts are evident in the strains of backlash against Ardern, from people who are clearly not tickled by this kind of novelty and progress. She deceived a nation, they moaned. The word betrayal was bandied around.
Jacinda didn’t betray so much as read the room.
Babies were the theme of her campaign, and not because she was kissing them. Mere hours into the top job, she faced a showdown with chat show host Mark Richardson, who grilled her about her family plans and implied employers had the right to pry around in women’s wombs.
She called that unacceptable, and it is. Imagine asking a man if he’s planning to fertilise his wife. And when? How many times? And when he does, how will it affect him?
It wouldn’t happen because there’s a double standard applied to men and women when it comes to the equally joyful privileges and responsibilities of family and career.
Thankfully, this incredibly public power pregnancy has an opportunity to change how people apply that standard. And there’s more ways it can change key narratives around gender equality at work.
Men taking more responsibility for childcare – and more importantly being allowed to via paid parental leave and flexible work that doesn’t come at the cost of career progression – is the other shoe that needs to drop for both men and women.
What’s undoubtedly causing pockets of angst about this is not only that New Zealand’s PM is a young female who’s unabashedly pregnant and taking six weeks’ parental leave from running the country, it’s that Ardern’s masculine, sporty partner Clarke Gayford is staying home with the baby.
The assumed presence of a carer is what has traditionally afforded men the luxury of having successful families and careers. More women need this. More men want this option. And the attention that will be on New Zealand’s First Man as his baby’s primary caregiver will help normalise men as equally viable in the care department.
Ardern clearly plans to reject the “motherhood penalty” – the sociological and statistical trend that shows the impact that bearing and raising children has on women’s wages (a drop of 4 per cent per child), negative perceptions (see here), and reduced mobility in the workforce. After children, many women return to work that is lower-paid and doesn’t reflect their abilities, education or work experience.
Organisations need policies in place to address this. Mainstreamed workplace flexibility is increasingly seen as one of the critical enablers for women’s equitable participation in the paid workforce. A body of research has also identified mentoring and sponsorship as important ways to support and promote women into senior leadership and prolong careers, not just jobs.
Men have a role in this new age, too; involving them in efforts to achieve greater gender equality is very important, especially since they hold most leadership positions and have the power to drive change. They also benefit from inclusion at work.
Ultimately, as a society, we need to consider which precedent we want to set. If we invest in women’s education, why not go all in and support those who want to go all the way? Prime Minister Ardern clearly does, and women around the world will be rooting for her, as much as themselves.
Lisa Annese is chief executive of the Diversity Council of Australia.