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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. EU Frances Cowell asks what message it really sends.

Fifty years ago, only progressive employers took on married women. Mothers with paid jobs were, outside professions such as nursing and school teaching, 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 had more to do with a combination of better education, the acute shortage of skilled workers that had built up after the war, and the accelerating growth in service industries that usually accompanies widespread wealth.

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 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 no longer willing to carry the load of unpaid housework and childcare on their own. Work-family balance became a catch phrase and it became cool for fathers to participate in the burden of childcare.

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. And women’s right to them can, perversely, lead to discrimination against all women in the workforce. For example, if you hire a highly skilled and paid woman, you need her there, working. But as you’re not allowed to discriminate against a working mother, you will find other reasons not to hire her. That fathers also take time off when children are born is welcome, but it is women who bear the children, with the physiological and emotional stresses that entails. The interruption to their working lives can be negotiable for fathers, but for mothers it isn’t. Presto, general discrimination against women.

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

If maternity leave can be shortened, then crèches need to be affordable, accessible and flexible, which is, alas, not always the case. A parent, especially a single one, may occasionally need to bring a child into the office. That it does not result in summary dismissal is real progress.

Yet its hardly tenable that everybody brings small children to work: the novelty of the occasional cute baby can be a pleasant distraction and even enhance relations between employees. 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 spend it with their own families rather than having their work days disrupted and prolonged even further by other peoples’.

Ideally, people take their work seriously. We like to think that can be said for our nations’ leaders too.

Was Mr Ballard trying to prove his multi-tasking credentials – feeding a baby while listening to a parliamentary debate? Or are we to believe that neither of the child’s parents, child care staff – nor anyone else – was available to help with feeding? Perhaps he is campaigning for a much-needed parliamentary crèche? (If so, he’s better placed than most to advance that decision!) Yet one can’t help suspecting that Mr Mallard was indulging in some every-day small-child attention-grabbing.

As a once-working-mother, my question is: 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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