New Zealand could be looking at its third female Prime Minister if Labour wins the next election, but Jacinda Ardern was in her new job less than 24 hours before being confronted with the one question that women can’t seem to escape, possible future Prime Minister or not – how will she juggle children and career?
You might think that this sort of question is outdated in today’s society, and you wouldn’t be alone. As soon as the question was asked, people jumped to Ardern’s defence on Twitter:
If an employer asked a female candidate “do you plan to have children?” they could be seen to be discriminating. NZ media should ponder this
— Stu Fleming (@StuFlemingNZ) August 1, 2017
— Lizzie Marvelly (@LizzieMarvelly) August 1, 2017
However, she was unfazed, saying that she had been very public about her desire for children, and that many women face the same issue.
But did it stop there?
No. Ardern then had to defend women all around the country on The AM Show, when Mark Richardson said that employers “need to know that type of thing from the women you’re employing”.
Ardern said that it was totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question, and that it is each woman’s decision.
So why does the question keep coming up?
Because most women are expected to take time off when they have children. This may not be true for everyone, but the Ministry for Women says that along with unconscious bias against women, career breaks are one of the main challenges facing women progressing in the workplace.
Returning to the workforce after having a family is made more difficult because the flexibility needed just isn’t offered, particularly in leadership or ‘C-suite’ positions. In 2015, women’s participation on private sector boards was 17 percent, and women held 20 percent of senior management positions.
Many organisations are designed to fit a traditional linear career trajectory – starting in your 20s, career acceleration during the 30s, career consolidation in your 40s and the 50s transition to retirement – but this approach doesn’t work if women are taking career breaks in their 20s and 30s, missing out on the opportunity to upskill.
Rather than telling women that they need to choose whether to follow this path or take time off to have children, companies need to look at how they can make senior roles more appealing to women. Flexible work options suggested by the Ministry for Women include:
part-time/reduced hours: anything less than full-time hours
job-sharing: a form of part-time working where two (or more) people share the responsibility for a job between them
flexi-time: employees choose, within certain set limits, when to begin and end work, usually in conjunction with ‘core times’ of the workday when people are required to be in the workplace
term-time working: employees remain on a permanent contract but can take paid/unpaid leave during school holidays
compressed hours: compressed working weeks (or fortnights) involves reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks than the regular working week, such as 40 hours over four days, or a nine-day fortnight
telecommuting/teleworking: employees work all or part of their working week at home or some other location remote from the workplace
gradual retirement: reduced workload or number of hours during the period before retirement career breaks: career breaks, or sabbaticals: extended periods of leave – normally unpaid – of up to five years or more.
As the Ministry for Women rightly points out, only when New Zealand companies start normalising these flexible working arrangements for all employees, regardless of gender, age or family responsibilities, will we remove the barriers and stigma around women returning to work after children.
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