The real reason why the most powerful women in the world don't have children.

It’s a conversation we have to have.

Last week the respected UK current affairs magazine The New Statesman ran a cover that provoked much controversy and tongue clicking.

The headline ran like this … “The motherhood trap: Why are so many successful women childless?’

Here it is:

The cover of New Statesman magazine that everybody’s talking about.

Set aside that the headline is somewhat nonsensical (isn’t the point that these women have escaped the motherhood trap because they don’t have kids?). Set aside that all the women political leaders on the cover looked drab and unhappy in their sensible skirt suits. And set aside the confronting image of a ballot box in a cradle.

What can we usefully say about why it is that there are more women than men without children in politics?While the cover is confronting and on first glance objectionable, the article by Helen Lewis makes some good points and reveals some telling statistics.

In the United Kingdom, in 2013, only 28% of male MPs were childless – against 45% for women. Female MPs had an average of 1.2 children, compared with 1.9 for men.

In Australia the distinction is even sharper. As journalist Annabel Crabbe found in her book The Wife Drought, male politicians on average have 2.1 kids while females have 1.1. In so many comparable countries, there is a discernible pattern where women politicians either don’t have kids, have fewer kids than their male colleagues or enter political life when their kids are much older.

As someone who has worked in politics, studied it and knows various women and male politicians, to me the reasons are clear why women politicians might have fewer or no children.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop both know what it’s like to have their reproductive status discussed and analysed.

First of all, more than almost any profession, politics is all-consuming.

Many, many years ago I edited a book about women in the Labor Party. A relatively unknown backbencher called Julia Gillard wrote a chapter on necessary reforms to help to help more women rise through ALP ranks. She wrote that often success in the Labor Party was all about “being in the right pub at the right time”. How correct she was. Bob Hawke is living proof of that.

Politics is not a 9-5 job. There are fundraisers, oh so many meetings, events during the week and on weekends, not to mention campaigns to be involved in and conferences to attend. You could fill every available hour when you weren’t at paid work or sleeping attending these kinds of events and indeed you probably need to in order to be preselected. Not exactly a family-friendly lifestyle.

Hillary and Bill Clinton’s partnership is still the exception rather than the rule.

How do male politicians do it? Well, they often have wives prepared to do almost everything on the home front. The Hilary and Bill Clinton partnership – or indeed the Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein duo – is still the exception rather than the rule. While many male politicians may have partners who work, it is unlikely they have jobs quite as demanding in terms of hours and travel. Successful politicians often have wives who keep everything domestic alive and kicking, there to pose for campaign pamphlet photos or the AWW story humanising their husband (see, voters, he is just like you! He has a wife and kids and takes the garbage out on the rare nights he is home …).

If you are a woman politician it is a tad harder to find someone willing to take on a ‘political husband’ role.

Of course the most famous political ‘husbands’ – like Dennis Thatcher and closer to home Julia Gillard’s partner Tim Mathieson – got a lot of schtick and ridicule from the media. Assumptions were made that they were gormless house husbands. If Hilary becomes the first President of the United States it will be fascinating to see what Bill will do, how he will be treated.

Tanya Plibersek and Sarah Hanson-Young are managing to have big political careers and a family.

Looking at The New Statesman cover and article, I feel conflicted. What does it matter that these powerful and successful women didn’t have kids? Maybe they don’t care and never aspired to be parents? But then again, does it send a message to younger women that they have to choose between family and career if their ambitions are as big and bold as leading a country?

There are of course Australian women politicians with children who excel in their roles. Not all of them entered politics with grown up kids: Tanya Plibersek, Sarah Hanson-Young, Penny Wong, Fiona Nash and Karen Andrews are a few federal MPs with younger children.

I’d like to see a magazine cover with them on it, and the headline … “Sure it’s hard but you can do it …”

What do you think of the cover?

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