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Why I'm shouting Jacinda's baby news from Japanese rooftops

PM Jacina Ardern with other world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Photo/Getty Images

In North-east Asia, mothers who want careers face enormous cultural barriers.

News of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy generated surprise and congratulations around New Zealand and the world. Although she has rejected the idea that she’s a trailblazer, noting that many others before her have combined a career and motherhood, only one other female politician in modern history has ever led a country and had a baby at the same time: Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto.

I have been shouting Ardern’s news from the rooftops – or, to be precise, from Twitter. This is because I’m proud to be from a country with a long history of pioneering women, right back to suffragist Kate Sheppard, but it’s also because of where I’m sitting. Here in Japan and in neighbouring South Korea, antiquated ideas about gender roles remain firmly entrenched.

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It’s exceptionally hard for women to have careers and children at the same time. Both countries have cultures of extremely long working hours, often including compulsory dinner and late karaoke with bosses, and no concept of work-life balance. Japan also has a severe lack of childcare facilities and a tax structure that makes it nonsensical for both spouses to work.

(Don’t even get me started on the Japanese law that requires a married couple to have the same surname – which, of course, means that in almost every case, the woman must take her husband’s name.)

These factors have contributed to Japan and South Korea’s poor standings in international rankings. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, but in the World Economic Forum’s global gender-equality rankings comes 114th out of 144 countries. South Korea ranked 118th.

The lack of women in professional positions is astounding. In my working life, it’s not unusual for me to be the only woman in a roomful of men. A recent business-related breakfast meeting was attended by 14 men and me – and I bet I was the only one who’d made a lunchbox and dropped my kid at school before the meeting.

It’s not unusual to hear of women being fired or forced out of their jobs once they get pregnant. But now both countries are facing demographic challenges because women are increasingly choosing career over family.

Indeed, the woman appointed by the South Korean Government to try to boost the birth rate, 64-year-old Gender Equality and Family Minister Chung Hyun-back, chose to remain childless and concentrate on her career in academia. Now she has to try to convince a younger generation of women that they don’t have to make that choice.

The disparity is particularly pronounced in politics. In Japan, women occupy just 9% of the seats in the lower house of Parliament; in South Korea, women recently hit a record of 17% representation.

For that reason, Ardern can show young women around the world that it’s possible to have a baby and a serious job and that it can be done when you have arguably the biggest job in the country.

Of course, she will be able to do this because she has a supportive partner who will take care of the baby while she runs the country. Herein is another important lesson for anachronistic societies such as those in north-east Asia. Only 2% of fathers take paternity leave. Many don’t even attend their baby’s birth, instead visiting the hospital after work.

So, sorry, Jacinda, but I’m going to champion you as a trailblazer and hope you will inspire young women – and men – in this neck of the woods to be ambitious in their professional and personal lives. Oh, and congratulations.

New Zealander Anna Fifield is the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.