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Ex-New Zealand PM Clark wades into sexism row

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark has slammed "ridiculous" and "sexist" questioning over whether opposition leader Jacinda Ardern plans to have a baby.

[WELLINGTON] Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark has slammed "ridiculous" and "sexist" questioning over whether opposition leader Jacinda Ardern plans to have a baby.

Ms Ardern, 37, took the reins of the centre-left Labour Party on Tuesday and was immediately grilled during television appearances about her desire to have children.

One interviewer suggested New Zealanders had a right to know her reproductive plans before they decided whether or not to vote for her in an upcoming general election.

"Ridiculous in 21stC that women in leadership positions are subjected to gender-based attacks," Ms Clark tweeted late Wednesday.

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"Are those who make them proud of themselves?" Ms Clark served as New Zealand prime minister from 1999 to 2008 and was in charge of the UN Development Programme from 2009 until earlier this year.

During her political career critics frequently attacked her decision not to have children, lampooned her low-pitched voice and even questioned her sexuality.

Asked what advice she would offer Ms Ardern, Ms Clark responded: "Ignore the sexist attack and get on with the job."

She also retweeted a comment from Canadian feminist academic Linda Trimble that everything Ms Ardern was experiencing had happened to Ms Clark, ex-Australian leader Julia Gillard, Canada's Kim Campbell and Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's first female prime minister.

An opponent once told Ms Gillard she was unfit for leadership because she was "deliberately barren", while Ms Shipley said her gender led to harsh characterisation.

"Look at the language, men are bold, women are vindictive... I'm not telling you that it's hurtful, I'm telling you that it's an observation," she said earlier this year.

Ms Campbell served a short stint as Canada's prime minister in 1993.

She believes the political system is so skewed against women that every electorate should have two candidates, one male and one female, as a way to achieve equality.

Other women leaders, including Britain's Theresa May, have found their gender the focus of unwanted attention.

When Mrs May was contesting the Tory leadership last year, rival Andrea Leadsom suggested having children made her better suited to the job.

"I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake," Ms Leadsom said, later apologising to Mrs May for the remark.

Ms Ardern, meanwhile, has proved more than capable of standing up for herself, saying it is "totally unacceptable" to link a woman's employment prospects with her plans for a family.

"It is the woman's decision about when they choose to have children. It should not pre-determine whether or not they get the job," she told TV3 on Wednesday.

Ms Ardern assumed the leadership from Andrew Little on Tuesday after polling showed Labour was heading for a disaster in next month's election.

She will attempt to prevent Prime Minister English winning a fourth term for the centre-right National party-led coalition.