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.
Here it is:
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.
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.