February 7, 2018

Mai Chen: Politicians examples normalise family life for female highflyers

Published in Stuff.co.nz

OPINION: New Zealanders have been well-served by recent prime ministers in terms of fronting up to the complex reality of mixing parenthood with high-pressure jobs.

By announcing she was having a baby and that her partner was going to look after it, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made visible what has been invisible for many women.

This is especially so for those in leadership and CEO roles, who can only sustain a demanding full time role after giving birth if someone else (often the father) is prepared to stay home.

Arden’s strong performance as PM undermines the credibility of anyone arguing that pregnancy means she is not up to the job.

This is exactly what former Prime Minister Bill English did, taking time off to look after his children to allow his wife Mary to finish medical school.

This is admirable, but it should not be unusual. Women have to give birth, but either parent can be a great primary carer.

Sadly, women in senior roles often feel conflicted around having babies in case we are accused of not being fighting fit for the role.

When I got pregnant I kept it hidden for four and a half months as I was the managing partner of a law firm and the main person who clients approached to instruct at that firm.

As I had feared, when I finally told people (as it was getting impossible to hide it) I had clients phoning to ask if I could still advise them and care for their organisations while pregnant and when I had the baby.

They told me that competitors had called, asking them to shift their work to their firms as I was likely to take a long time off and then have more babies.

These were all the reasons I hid my pregnancy for as long as possible. I didn’t have long at home after having Jack and my wonderful husband was primary carer for our son and worked part-time.

I look forward to the day when pregnancies, miscarriages and post-natal depression are accepted as realities, rather than having to be hidden and invisible.

Dame Jenny Shipley’s honesty in speaking publicly about her post-natal depression is a rare exception.

After my second miscarriage, I also got post-natal depression. I did not feel able to tell anyone at work as I was the boss and felt I had to pretend I was fine.

My firm had already booked a big celebration in the Grand Hall of Parliament in Wellington to celebrate its tenth anniversary, hundreds of guests had confirmed.

Had I postponed the event I would have had to explain why, so it went ahead.

When I confided in some other women bosses, I was amazed to find that so many of them had also suffered miscarriages, and some of them depression, but many also had not felt able to tell work colleagues.

This has to change.

So thanks Jacinda, Clarke, Bill and Jenny. You did not have a choice but to tell people and make your parenting roles visible because of the need for political transparency.

But in doing so, you have made it more acceptable for the rest of us, especially in leadership or CEO roles, to do likewise.

We need to start making parenthood (with all of its joys and issues) more visible, including for those in leadership positions.

For those of us able and wanting to choose parenthood, it can make us better leaders, not worse.

Mai Chen is managing partner of Chen Palmer Partners and Adjunct Professor of Law University of Auckland.