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Questions About Family Planning Point to Unconscious Bias

New Zealand has a long history of progressive culture and politics. As the country’s government website proudly boasts, this sparsely populated island at the far end of the world “became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.” The website further states, “New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of our image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’.”

That trend continues as female politician Jacinda Ardern, recently became the youngest leader of the New Zealand Labor Party ever. And yet, even in nations as socially progressive as New Zealand, stereotypes can rear their ugly heads from time to time. The question, as Camila Domonoske reported for National Public Radio, went like this:

"I've got a question, and we've been discussing today whether I'm allowed to ask it or not," co-host Jesse Mulligan said to Ardern, with a pointed glance at female co-host Kanoa Lloyd. "Let me put it this way. A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career or continuing their career at a certain point of their lives, late thirties... Is that a decision that you feel you have to make or that you maybe feel that you've already made?"

Ardern didn’t make much of the question. In fact, she’s spoken publicly about that choice in the past and her own personal decisions regarding balancing family life with a career.

However, radio host Mark Richardson defended the question in a much broader sense the next day, arguing that asking any woman about her familial intentions is not only appropriate, but advised. Again, Domonske:

"I think it's a legitimate question for New Zealand, because she could be the prime minister leading this country," Richardson said, referring to Ardern's possible role if she pulls off a dramatic reversal of fortune for the opposition party. "She has our best interest at heart. We need to know these things.

"If you're the employer at a company, you need to know that type of thing from the women you're employing, because legally you have to give them maternity leave, so therefore the question is is it OK for a [prime minister] to take maternity leave while in office?"

Obviously, it’s not necessary to go into the specifics of why such a statement is troubling. The larger point is that even in a socially progressive, Western society like New Zealand, attitudes towards women’s choices regarding family decisions are still seen as a valid concern to some employers and constituents. To be fair, there was a great deal of public outrage at Richardson’s comments, and New Zealand does have prohibitions against asking such questions in employment situations.

Still, this incident is an important reminder that as far as we’ve come in many societies, there are still lingering stereotypes and double standards lurking beneath the surface.

Whether spurred by unconscious bias, or not, such inquiries are inappropriate. Inclusion is a business imperative—for all of us!

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