The Prime Minister's shock baby announcement has put the spotlight on the situation for working mothers in New Zealand.
My pregnancy has unfolded in parallel to Jacinda Ardern’s … apart from the fact I didn’t become Prime Minister six days after my positive pregnancy test.
But what great news for women in New Zealand. Proof positive that we can Have It All, right? A female Chief Justice, Governor General, and now PM – and a pregnant one at that. What a great little country we are! Glass ceiling smashed, tick. What next?
Not so fast.
We’ve been here before, with the triumvirate of females in the top jobs. In 2001, when I was a young, idealistic law student, Helen Clark was PM, Dame Silvia Cartwright was Governor General, and Dame Sian Elias was Chief Justice. And yet, as at November 2017, our gender pay gap sits at 9.4%.
The media coverage of young Ardern- Gayford’s imminent arrival has been overwhelmingly positive, despite a few mean-spirited utterings from some dark corners of the internet. But in reality, we have a long way to go.
My delight when I heard Jacinda and Clarke’s baby news was less about the baby cuteness factor (let’s face it, newborns are really only appealing to their parents; “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a wig” as Nancy Mitford once put it). It was about finally seeing a woman my age live the reality of having a big job and a baby.
We wring our hands about the gender pay gap and equality, we talk about flexible workplaces to support working mums, job share arrangements, women lacking self-confidence, imposter syndrome. These factors are all relevant, but what is holding us back is the system. There is still an overwhelming culture of presenteeism in New Zealand businesses, a lack of flexibility, an assumption that becoming a parent means taking your foot off your career accelerator. There are companies that have made progress, embedding flexible work practices as the norm, rather than the exception (including the one I’m lucky enough to work for) – but they are still outliers.
Imposter syndrome – the assumption that women have low self-esteem about their accomplishments, and fear being exposed as fraud – isn’t really a thing. Women know we are capable of doing these senior roles. Of all the smart, ambitious women I know, lack of confidence in their competence isn’t what’s holding them back. None of my mates say “oh I’d love that job, but all the guys at work are so much smarter than me.” There’s no ambition gap. But we are falling behind because too many organisations require us to be in the office between 8.30 and 5.30, minimum. There are events to attend in the evening, we need to travel overseas for work trips, we need to be able to stay late at short notice. How does that work when crèche shuts at 5.30, we don’t have a stay at home spouse, and our partners have work commitments of their own?
Even if our employers are flexible, our partners’ employers aren’t (or our partners don’t want to ask for flexible work arrangements), so the burden of the care, and the mental load, disproportionately continues to fall to us.
Having previously been fairly ambitious pre-parenthood, after parental leave, in a fit of mummy martyrdom I took on a 24 hour a week job. It would be perfect I thought. I would work part-time, I would pick up my baby from crèche at 3pm, I would be Doing It All.
It was not perfect. It was a classic case of choosing the “mummy track” (work arrangements for women in the workforce that facilitate motherhood but provide fewer opportunities for career advancement). The job was more junior than the one I had left, the work less interesting. The shorter hours, rather than helping me balance my life, just stressed me out. The crunch came when a (female) colleague commented, “oh but you’re never here!” I was in the office part-time, paid part-time, but constantly available at the end of the phone, and feeling pathetically guilty 24/7. I left and took on a full-time job – a more challenging role, more hours, but still, crucially, flexible – which was ultimately much more fulfilling.
Our PM earns $471,000, she has staff to manage her schedule, more than enough income to pay a nanny. Her partner will stay at home with the baby. Her Wellington residence is a five-minute walk from her workplace. If she can’t make this full-time working motherhood gig work, frankly, what hope is there for the rest of us?
As women of child-bearing age, we’re damned either way. We might be determined to remain child-free forever, or plan to have nine children – it doesn’t matter. The mere potential of our wombs looms darkly over our careers like a bad fairy at a christening.
When I was pregnant with my son, first time around, I had big plans for how I’d manage working motherhood. I knew I could do it, but others weren’t quite so sure. When I was discussing return to work arrangements with my former boss, I said I’d like to return, flexibly, when my baby was three months old. “Hmmm”, he said. “Well how are you going to manage that? Who will look after the baby?” The child will have two parents, I said, naively. My husband will.
“Well that’s all very well, Gen”, he said benignly. “But he can’t exactly breastfeed.”
I was annoyed but I wasn’t surprised. As a pregnant woman, you get used to being benevolently patronised. This is the thing that detractors don’t understand: we need more pregnant women in top jobs, not fewer. The boss makes the rules. Jacinda IS the boss – she gets to decide how she’ll balance time with her child with her work obligations, and her example makes it more acceptable for women further down the pecking order to do the same.
I went back to work when my son was six months old. I looked around at all the women I worked with, most of whom had a couple of kids, and I suddenly realised that they’d all been doing this for years. Resettling crying babies at 3am. Having furious whispered arguments with their partners at 4am about whose turn it was to get up. They’d been somehow getting children up, fed, dressed. Crèche runs through the rain, unpeeling toddlers from their legs to race back to the car. Getting to work and getting on with it. Then again in reverse. It had been happening all around me and I had never noticed.
There is no perfect time to have a baby. Our PM is perhaps an extreme example of taking on a lot at once, but she is not the only woman to work full-time in a demanding job while having children. She is, however, one of a very few women in a top-tier role. Of all of the companies in the NZX50, one – Chorus – has a female CEO. One. Are men so inherently more competent that women that they just happened to be the better candidate in 98% of listed companies in NZ? Or is the system broken? You tell me.
As for the faux concerned hand-wringing about six weeks’ parental leave; get over it, seriously. Parenting doesn’t miraculously get easier once the 52 week extended parental leave period is up.
When my son was 15 months old, I had an early flight to Wellington to run a meeting for an acquisition I was working on. My son woke every hour from midnight. I spent most of the night lying on his bedroom floor, alternately shushing him and playing Peppa Pig clips on my phone. My alarm went off at 5am, I got up, drank 3 strong coffees, got to Wellington in time for the 8am meeting, worked through what we needed to do, caught the afternoon flight back to Auckland. I guarantee you every working mother you know has a similar story. “Because”, to quote our PM, “that’s what ladies do.”
Make no mistake, this is privileged, Lean In feminism. These are the problems of affluent, educated women who want the Big Job: partnership in the law firm, CEO, the prime ministership. Problems from behind the Goat’s Cheese Curtain, as demographer Bernard Salt described us (so-called because you know you’ll find goat’s cheese in the fridge) – prosperous, middle-class burghers of city-fringe suburbs, juggling their work calendar with their nanny’s schedule on their brand new iPhone.
They are not the problems of women who work just to keep a roof over their kids’ heads, to pay the grocery bill, who have nothing extra at the end of each week, who have no option but to work. But barriers to female participation in the workforce at every level need to be addressed. It makes no sense just to focus on the bottom rungs of the ladder, because without female champions and role models at the top, change is not going to come.
As for the First Baby, I have no advice to offer in addition to the deluge that has already started and will no doubt continue unabated for the next few years. The eleven baby books I read didn’t really prepare me for the full gamut of joy, horror and bewilderment that was my experience of first-time parenthood. My only advice to Jacinda, is that if you’re tempted to feel guilty about working, don’t. (And take all advice with a grain of salt).
The First Baby will be born to two sensible, intelligent, loving parents; it will want for nothing. There is no need for guilt - it is already so lucky.
Genevieve O’Halloran is External Relations Manager for Lion NZ, champion winner of the YWCA Equal Pay Awards 2017, and of the DiversityWorks Work/Life Balance Award 2017.