She became her party’s youngest ever leader after being unanimously elected on Tuesday (1 Aug) to replace Andrew Little as head of the New Zealand Labour Party.
But just hours after her appointment, Jacinda Ardern found herself being asked whether she planned to have children – with one interviewer insisting that people “need to know that type of thing” before a woman takes a job.
Unsurprisingly, she angrily denounced the comment as “totally unacceptable in 2017”.
The first time the subject came up – on current affairs TV programme The Project on Tuesday night – host Jesse Mulligan dived into whether she felt she’d had to choose between her career and starting a family.
Ardern said she had “no problem” with the question given it was something “probably lots of women face”, but fielded it expertly by saying she felt she was “no different” to any other woman in the country “juggling lots of responsibilities”.
But a short while later, around 24 hours after taking the post, the question prompted a discussion on Wednesday morning’s The AM Show about her having a baby if she became prime minister, resulting in co-host Mark Richardson asking if it was “OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?”
He prefaced his question with the justification that “she could be the prime minister running this country, she has our best interests at heart, we need to know these things.
“If you are the employer of a company you need to know that type of thing from the woman you are employing because legally, you have to give them maternity leave.”
The sentiment he expressed – that employers (presumably meaning the people of New Zealand if she became prime minister) should know a woman’s baby plans before decided whether to offer her a job – is actually illegal, being discrimination based on sex according to the country’s Human Rights Act of 1993.
Ardern, who had not been on air during the discussion, but was then brought on for an interview, responded angrily.
Though she first told interviewer Duncan Garner it was fair to ask her about having children given her past willingness to speak about it (“it was my choice”), she pointed out that it was a damaging statement to make.
Addressing Richardson, she firmly stated: “For other women, 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 attempted to defend his argument, saying that the (assumed to be male) boss would have to prepare for an employee to take a year off: “I just think it’s unfair for an employer […] he needs to know at some stage down the line [that] he may need to have to allow, in his organisation, for that person to take a year of leave.
“I’m not saying don't employ that person.”
Repeating the fact that such knowledge risks influencing whether a woman got a job or not, Ardern shot back: “If you're asking the question around the time you're making a decision around employment, you’re implying it’s going to have an impact on whether you're going to employ that person or not.
“That is what I'm saying is unacceptable […] Why would you ask if it wasn’t going to prejudice your decision?”
He replied: “Everyone needs to be able to prepare in advance [for maternity leave].”
She ended the exchange with a sarcastic thumbs up, saying, “Good debate!”
As co-host Amanda Gillies had previously pointed out, his argument left no room for the possibility that children would not happen, or questions of intrusion of privacy.
Both she and Richardson have been open on past shows about their own struggles with fertility.
“What happens if she can't have children? What happens if she doesn’t want children? That’s no one's business at the moment,” she explained.
“That’s between her and Clarke Gayford, her partner. [The initial question] didn’t sit well with me, and I can guarantee no one asked Bill English when he was 39 and leader of the Opposition of the National Party.”
Images: Rex Features