Gender and Career

woman in black coat

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On Thursday, 21st June, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a baby daughter. The news made the headline in newspapers, blogs and magazines throughout the world. When my husband told me about the news over the phone while I was at work, my first reaction was “So what?!”. Women have been and are giving birth to children every second of the day around the world, with many women doing so in much less fortunate circumstances than New Zealand’s prime minister. The ability to bear children is part of who we are as women, part of our biological make-up. So, what was so special about Jacinda Adern’s baby news that it was followed around the world?

Going through the articles of newspapers from various countries, I learned that Jacinda Adern is the third woman to lead New Zealand and the youngest prime minister in 150 years. More importantly so, she is also the first world leader to give birth while in office in nearly three decades. The only other woman was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth to daughter Bakhtawar in 1990. Adern plans to take six weeks of maternity leave before returning to office. Although Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters will take over as acting prime minister during this time, Adern will still be consulted on major decisions, including national security. Upon her return to office, Adern’s partner Clarke Gayford will become a stay-at-home parent and look after their baby daughter.

Learning about the decisions and arrangements made between Adern and her partner in light of their baby daughter’s arrival, I felt indeed a sense of pride that this couple challenges traditional stereotypical ideas about women and men as well as mothers and fathers. Aderns’ plans reflect a groundbreakingly different approach to both political power and motherhood. This feeling of pride made me aware of the fact that despite gender fair legislation, gender mainstreaming, and other efforts to improve gender equality and gender balance in leadership, women in positions of power and authority are still a rare sight – mothers even less so.

People tend to have dissimilar beliefs about leaders and women and similar beliefs about leaders and men. For example, women are perceived as caring, gentle, and affectionate whereas leaders and men are perceived as assertive, ambitious, and able to lead. Eagly and Karau explain how this incongruency between beliefs about women and beliefs about leaders can give rise to two forms of prejudice towards female leaders: First, people believe that women do not have what it takes to be a leader, making it difficult for women to access leadership roles. Second, people evaluate actual leadership behavior in women less positively than in men because the exact same behavior is perceived as less desirable in women than men, making it very difficult for women to succeed in their roles. Even if female leaders were able to navigate these two challenges successfully, the next one would await them once they become mothers. Research shows that the professional role is incompatible with the role of a mother but compatible with the role of a father in perceivers’ eyes; Western society traditionally expects women to be the primary caregivers and men to be the primary breadwinners. As a result, Cuddy and colleagues found that when working women become mothers, they trade perceived warmth for competence, which unjustly compromises their professional credibility and their odds of being hired, promoted, and supported in the workplace. In contrast, no one questions working fathers’ professional credibility; however, men who request family leave are seen as less competent and weak as shown by Rudman and Mescher.

In light of this research evidence, the arrangements put into place by Adern and her partner upon the arrival of their baby daughter are brave and to be admired. Behaving in a gender a-typical way as women and men as well as mothers and fathers bears a significant risk. But it is also an opportunity to challenge traditional stereotypes and afford greater behavioural flexibility for both sexes in the future. I now understand why the world followed Adern’s pregnancy and the baby news so closely. These events have symbolic importance for women and men throughout the world who advocate social change, gender equality, and women’s empowerment. It requires both sexes to embrace this change and to re-define traditional notions of a career, the division of labor between the sexes, and traditional expectations of what good mothers and fathers are like and should be like. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark wrote in an email to The Associated Press that “this is a sign of maturity as a country and its acceptance that combining career and family is a choice which women are free to make. Let’s also celebrate Clarke as a modern man who is happy to be the full-time parent of a young child.”

Let’s hope that this brave young couple in New Zealand and their baby daughter will inspire not only their own country but many others, paving the way for other non-traditional career couples and families.

About the author:
Janine Bosak is an Associate Professor at DCU Business School, Dublin, Ireland.
You can contact her at janine.bosak@dcu.ie

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