The announcement by Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford that they will be parents this year for the first time suggests a Rubicon is about to be crossed. Some progress has been made toward women being able to be mothers and in paid employment but there is some way to go.  Given Ardern and Gayford's prominence they may be about to make the tectonic plates of our society shift. 

Imagine a world that is organised so that we took it for granted that mothers could be in paid employment. It is easy - but you do have to try. 

Progress has been made. Paid parental leave, the expansion of child care and early childhood education, family-friendly workplaces, a willingness by employers to hold a mother's job open - these are all on the positive side of the ledger. 

The weight, however, is still on the negative side because the changes made just take the rough edges off the assumption that men do paid work while women raise a family. Until that assumption changes, life will remain a challenge for employed mums. 

It is this situation that makes the announcement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford that they are expecting a child sound like a Rubicon being crossed. 

Let's get the announcement right. Ardern and Gayford have always been open about wanting a family. We know (because she said so) that they have been told intervention might be required. It, therefore, came as a surprise that in the middle of coalition talks to form a new government, Ardern found out she was pregnant. Wisely, Ardern and Gayford waited until after the first trimester until saying anything. 

Like any working couple, they took time to work out how they would handle jobs and raising a child. Gayford has a successful career in television but Ardern is the Prime Minister so it was decided he would be the one to say home. Once they were confident everything was on track, they announced the news via social media - like any self-respecting millenial - and handled the ensuing outpouring of interest like a happy mum and dad to be.  

This story is worth repeating because there has been the inevitable criticism. Some have said that Ardern should have told everyone she was going to have children when she got the job as Labour leader. Apart from that being her business, not ours, she did not know.

Others have hinted darkly (on Twitter as usual) that the baby might have been used as a bargaining chip during the negotiations with New Zealand First. Ardern might have shared her surprise with Peters and made it clear she would need him to be Prime Minister. 

As conspiracy theories go, this is at the lunatic end of the scale. It ranks alongside the "birther"conspiracy that was thown at Obama during his Presidency and is not worth debating. As Obama found out, stupid crazy people care only about "alternative facts". But for the record, the conspirators are talking about a couple who were worried they might not be able to conceive suddenly discovering they were going to have a child. Only the seriously deranged would think Ardern would rush to tell Peters or that Peters would see such news as his big break. 

More generally, it has been suggested that it is impossible for a woman to have a job and a child at the same time. The people making this criticism need to know one thing. It has been difficult for women to have a job and a child only because that is the way society is organised. Men father children but this is not seen as a problem for their employment because women stay at home to look after the child. Problem solved. 

If we were to take it for granted that women could be mothers and continue at work, we would organise society so this could happen. 

To think otherwise is to entertain the very tricky proposition that women are somehow not up to working and having children. As former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley wisely warned, "Trolls should be very careful before they go there". 

For those determined critics of Ardern and Gayford, the fact that she is the Prime Minister in a coalition government gives them something to work on. How can she, they wail, look after the country and a child? What will happen to the government when she hands over the reins to Winston Peters who is not even a member of the Labour caucus? 

The first complaint takes us back to the point that it depends on how the world, or for now the home, is organised. It looks like Ardern/Gayford have sorted out who will be the day-to-day parent to everyone's satisfaction and an extensive support crew is in the wings. That it will be Gayford at home is no doubt a source of delight to those stay-at-home dads who have found themselves explaining why they are at the play group. 

The second complaint concerns the six-week period that Ardern says she will be off work. As Deputy Prime Minister, Peters will take over - as he would if she were away on overseas business. Love him or not, he is one of the most experienced politicians in Parliament. Safe hands. 

But, say the critics, he is from a different party. How can that work? This complaint defies belief. Are we to think that while Peters is Prime Minister he is going to sabotage the government he is part of? Not likely. I suspect he will be like a proud uncle and keep the place very tidy. 

As an aside, Peters as Prime Minister, albeit breifly, can be seen as another step in the evolution of MMP. It is not unusal in countries with proportional representation systems for the Prime Minister to come from a smaller party within a coalition. This is a taste of things that might come in the future. 

The months through to June this year are going to be both fascinating and a major learning curve for us all. Because of the prominence of Ardern and Gayford, we are going to experience the tectonic plates of our society shifting in real time. We are going to be talking about the roles of men and women. About families and work. And, as Ardern invited us to be, we will be the village that raises a child. Imagine that!


Comments (4)

by Charlie on January 22, 2018

Meanwhile back in the real world, half the women in my office are successfuly juggling a career and motherhood. So Jacinda's pregnancy is not exactly earth shattering news.

That said, biology will always make it difficult for women to be successful in top positions because they require a person to make a continuous sacrifice of 70-80 hrs a week in order to get there. This alone accounts for the lack of women in these roles: They mostly choose to put their children before their career.

Jacinda is an anomaly in this respect. She hasn't had to work particularly long or hard to be gifted her current role. Time will tell if she's up to it.


by Lee Churchman on January 23, 2018
Lee Churchman
[quote]The weight, however, is still on the negative side because the changes made just take the rough edges off the assumption that men do paid work while women raise a family.[/quote] To be fair (and I think it is revealing), this is an assumption among older people. Virtually nobody my age (and I am Gen X) believes this. Decisions tend to be made for financial reasons rather than because of traditional gender roles. Gayford and Ardern's situation is far from unusual. This just smacks to me of older people talking amongst themselves without realising it, and without realising that their generation is fast becoming politically and socially irrelevant.
by Ross on January 23, 2018

That said, biology will always make it difficult for women to be successful in top positions because they require a person to make a continuous sacrifice of 70-80 hrs a week in order to get there

It's all about working smarter, not working harder. Many workers working long hours are those without any qualifications and who, I suspect, are on low pay.

"...the largest group of long hours workers are those who have no qualifications, and around 40% of those working 50 or more hours a week have educational qualifications equal to a Level 2 certificate or lower (which includes those with no qualifications)...[a] third (38%) of those working 50 or more hours a week have personal incomes of $40,000 or less, and 22% have incomes of $30,000 or less".


by Charlie on January 23, 2018


Whilst some low paid workers may do some overtime to earn more money or take on a second job, this is nothing like the hours worked by professionals chasing the top positions.

Talk to junior accounts, lawyers, engineers and doctors who are in the hunt for that elusive partnership or associate title. My experience is that they work crazy hours, mostly for no direct compensation - only an elusive title at the end of several years effort.

To support this, here are a couple of quotes from the link you posted:

Gender: Three-quarters of those working long hours are men. Around a third (32%) of working men work 50 or more hours a week, and 12% of working women work these hours. These proportions rise to 36% and 19% respectively when only full-time workers are considered.


Income: Long hours workers are more likely to have higher personal incomes relative to the total workforce, with 12% of long hours workers having incomes of $100,001 or more (compared with 5% of the total workforce).

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.