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The photo and video depicting Trevor Mallard, Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, feeding a colleague’s baby during a parliamentary debate has been shared widely. Mr Ballard may have been seeking to make a point about striking a balance between work and family. Europa United’s Frances Cowell wonders what message it really sends.

Fifty years ago, only progressive employers took on married women. Outside nursing and school teaching, mothers with paid jobs were both rare and somewhat frowned upon. A crèche was a misspelling of what happened to your car.

Women’s liberation activists can take some credit, but in truth women’s advance in the workforce from the 1970s onwards probably had more to do with a combination of better education, a shortage of skilled workers following the war, increasing automation in manufacturing and the associated shift toward service industries.

Even then, as late as the late 1990s, professional women with families were careful to arrive at the office earlier and leave later than their male colleagues, for fear of being accused of lacking commitment to their job.

It took a while, but eventually decent child care facilities began to appear and the idea of paid maternity leave caught on. Yet it also became clear that women, who contributed increasingly to household income, were less willing to shoulder the whole load of unpaid housework and childcare. Work-family balance became a catch phrase and it became cool for fathers to help raise their children.

So, from a time when working women often concealed the fact that they were also mothers, to fathers taking pride in their nurturing skills, improving work-family balance is an unalloyed good. But mixing work and family does pose some practical problems.

Long maternity absences can be hard for businesses, especially small ones, which are less able than their larger competitors to absorb the costs and disruption. Women’s right to them can, perversely, lead to discrimination against all women in the workforce. Consider a medium-sized firm that hires a highly skilled and paid woman in a senior post. They need her there, working. But as they’re not allowed to discriminate against a working mother, they will find other reasons not to hire her, and may hire a man instead. That fathers also take time off when children are born is welcome, but the interruption to their working lives is negotiable. Biology dictates that it is women who bear the children, with all the physiological and emotional stresses that entails. Presto, general discrimination against women.

It seems clear that maternity leave needs to be more flexible than it now is in most places. But for this to happen, crèches and child care facilities need to be affordable, accessible and flexible, which alas is not always the case, and that shortage and lack of flexibility can mean that parents, especially single ones, may occasionally need to bring a child into the office.

That being a working mother does not result in summary dismissal is real progress. Yet its hardly tenable that everybody bring small children to work: the novelty of the occasional cute baby can be a pleasant distraction. A dozen toddlers crashing into things around the place just distracts. Most people go to the office to do the job they’re paid to do. If they have time to spare, they might like to get home a bit earlier to spend it with their own families rather than having their work days disrupted and prolonged even further by other peoples’.

Licia Ronzulli

To draw attention to the practical difficulties still facing many working mothers,Licia Ronzulli , on several occasions, brought her daughter Vittoria with her to work in the European parliament. Mr Ballard may have been trying to make the same point, but if so, it was somewhat blunted by the fact that it wasn’t his child. Perhaps he was proving his multi-tasking credentials – feeding a baby while listening to a parliamentary debate.  Are we to believe that neither of the child’s parents, child care staff – nor anyone else – was available to help with feeding? If Mr Ballard is campaigning for a much-needed parliamentary crèche, then few are better placed than he to advance that cause!

As a once-working single mother, I’m bugged by a couple of questions: Once he had finished feeding the child, did he burp it? Did it bring up milk all over his suit? Did he change its nappy? On his desk? Or did someone proffer a despatch box?

Please.

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Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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