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Can women ever overcome the ‘baby question’ at work?

The question about women’s employment and maternity strikes again

It’s 2017, and New Zealand’s new opposition leader is being asked when she will have a baby.

Jacinda Ardern was elected leader of the Labour Party on Tuesday after her predecessor Andrew Little stepped down. After appearing on a current affairs programme The Project just a few hours into her new tenure, she was asked by host Jesse Mulligan whether she had to choose between a life in politics and having children.

Having previously spoken about the subject, she replied: ‘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.

‘For me, my 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.’

Fair enough.

But, in another interview a few days ago, Ardern was pressed about the convergence of motherhood with employment, and reacted with frustration about being probed on the subject. A host on The AM Show, Mark Richardson, said New Zealanders had the right to know when choosing a prime minister whether that person 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 OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?’ Richardson asked.

Visibly angry, Ardern hit back: ‘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. 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 incidents have sparked fierce debate about women’s rights in the workplace, rightly so. Can female equality ever be achieved when giving birth is still such a contentious issue for employers?

As long as women are still the baby-carriers for the rest of time (let’s hope scientific advancements change that though), the question about childbirth will loom over their employability. Even if they don’t plan on having children.

Economic arguments are usually put forward by companies who factor in how long someone is likely to stay in their position, and whether they can afford to pay maternity leave. On a purely economical level, this makes sense. Capitalism dictates that the more money, the better, so hiring women of child-rearing age is some sort of gamble.

But financial arguments often don’t line up with moral ones. It takes both men and women to make a baby, therefore the onus shouldn’t solely fall on the mother. Furthermore, more and more women are choosing not to have children, and a lot of women return to work after they have given birth.

In 2016, the percentage of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 was just 4%. While there are a variety of reasons that women aren’t taking top spots in business, most of them due to sexist attitudes and structures, a clear obstacle is maternity.


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