New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a baby girl on Thursday and entered a tiny club of two. She is only the second woman prime minister of a country — after Benazir Bhutto — to give birth while in office. It’s a pregnancy that has sent out the most remarkable signals. Ardern is unmarried and lives with a partner, who is a stay-at-home father. When she returns to work after her six-week maternity leave, he will presumably do the hard labour of caring for their child. A political leader, who takes pregnancy and motherhood in her stride, is a great role model for young women of her country, when/if they need to fight the battle of perception and prejudice. For the millions of working women around the world, too, it affirms what they already know. Whatever be the work — be it running a country or an ad agency — motherhood will not shackle their careers, provided workplaces and societies back them up.
The question remains, though: What will it take for societies not to a) saddle women with childcare alone and b) not punish them at workplaces for doing the work that mothers do? Even Serena Williams — arguably a superwoman, if ever there was one — was not exempt. When the tennis player returned to the sport after a difficult pregnancy, she was unseeded at the French Open tournament. In effect, she was placed several hundred points below her pre-pregnancy rank. That’s something most working women, unfortunately, have come to take for granted: That going on maternity leave must always entail missing a promotion or a dent in career prospects. This is borne out by research, carried out across countries, that the gender pay gap increases with age. No amount of lean-in sermons can rectify that unless there is an effort to accommodate and promote women, mothers or not.
In India, too, that gap is immense, compounded by the very low rates of participation of women in the organised workforce. For most Indian women, motherhood and career remain an either/or choice. Does it have to be so? Let’s hope that by the time another PM joins the Ardern-Bhutto club, the answer to that question is a loud negative.