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Ardern's resignation shows that women still face an uphill battle in politics

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By Farida Jalalzai
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern grimaces as she announces her resignation at a press conference in Napier, New Zealand, on Jan 19. Photo: Warren Buckland/New Zealand Herald via AP

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Jan 19 that she will soon resign from office. “I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” Ardern said.

Ardern was 37 when she was elected prime minister in 2017, and is the youngest female head of government to have served in any country. During her tenure, Ardern oversaw the country’s strict COVID-19 response and also dealt with other crises like the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019.

The prime minister also received unwanted attention that many observers – and Ardern herself – dubbed sexist. This included questions and comments about Ardern’s plans to have a child, as well as about her eventual pregnancy in office. Ardern herself noted in her resignation speech that she is looking forward to spending more time with family once she leaves office in February.

She also addressed her young daughter, saying, “And so to Neve, Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year.”

The Conversation U.S. spoke with Virginia Tech political science scholar and women in politics expert Farida Jalalzai to provide context about the unique challenges facing Ardern and other women in positions of power.

What does Ardern’s resignation say about the experiences of women in top political jobs?

Women in leadership positions will get asked certain questions that men do not. New Zealand is obviously a country that has had many women in political positions – Ardern was the third female prime minister there. Still, Ardern, for example, faced questions about her appearance and personal life, like her plans for marrying her partner.

Men tend to receive less media coverage about their personal lives. People also tend to think of places like New Zealand as countries where women have shattered the glass ceiling, politically speaking. But if this kind of sexist questioning and speculation is what’s happening at the highest levels in the most egalitarian societies like New Zealand, then of course it must be happening in all of these other places where women are facing political violence, for example.

How can having a woman as a political leader impact societies and the way they consider gender?

When women hold really visible positions worldwide, that sends a signal to the public that politics is more open and that women bring competency to the position. Some of my research shows that having women in these political roles has encouraged other women to become more engaged in the political system and to believe that politics is more open to everyone. It has also led men to feel similarly.

There is also power that comes with seeing the first woman rise to a very visible leadership position. Whereas even though Hillary Clinton didn’t clinch the presidential victory in 2016, it certainly seemed to shape people’s views of what was possible. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in the following election, so many more women – and women of diverse backgrounds – threw their hats in the ring, even at local and state levels.

What are the risks, if any, facing women in these high-profile roles?

I’ve written about, for example, the 2016 impeachment of Brazil’s former president, Dilma Rousseff. She faced overt sexist attacks and was the victim of essentially a witch hunt, where she ultimately did nothing that would have normally led to the corruption charges she faced. What we found in a 2021 book I co-authored with Pedro dos Santos was that after Rousseff’s removal, people’s beliefs that women could be competent leaders declined over the short term, for about a year.

What’s the precedent for having a female leader with young kids?

It’s uncommon for women to give birth in executive office. The other head of state or government who was pregnant during her tenure was Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990. There was a deliberate attempt by Bhutto’s opposition to schedule elections for when she was having the baby. But she cleverly lied about the due date so that she could throw the opposition off, because she knew that they were going to try to make it impossible for her to campaign.

Ardern took six weeks off for maternity leave. But cases of women with very young children are still few and far between because women tend to wait until they’re older to become part of the political realm – and then it takes awhile to make it to the top.

Has there been a shift over the last few years in how women in politics address their personal lives?

It’s becoming more common to not hide that personal side of yourself. In a way, female leaders in politics can control the narrative if they don’t hide the facts, or they could even make that a positive aspect of their tenure.

Michelle Bachelet, who was the president of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and then again from 2014 to 2018, was a single mom. When she ran for office, she gained a lot of support from single mothers and working mothers, who understood what it’s like to be in the same position.

But generally, women in positions of power have to achieve balance in such a way that you don’t want to come across as too hard and too aggressive, because they will get hit for that. If they are conceived of as overly soft and an emotional person, then they are going to get criticized for that, as well. There isn’t an easy way around it.

Dr Farida Jalalzai is an Associate Dean for Global Initiatives and Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

20 Comments
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What uphill battle? She attained the position that is at the top of the hill in NZ politics.

Any leader whose failed Covid programs result in the highest infection and death rates in the world, and whose economy plummets into recession is going to be severely criticized, regardless of gender.

9 ( +15 / -6 )

Any leader whose failed Covid programs result in the highest infection and death rates in the world

You would have a point if this were true regarding NZ. But it isn’t.

1 ( +7 / -6 )

Bob FosseToday  08:43 am JST

You would have a point if this were true regarding NZ. But it isn’t.

I usually try not to feed it, but what the heck:

*Modelers estimate that each Omicron-positive New Zealander is infecting an average of 4.64 other people — the highest rate among 180 countries analyzed.*

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/03/world/australia/new-zealand-covid-omicron.html

1 ( +8 / -7 )

I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice

She literally admitted she's not good enough?

She no doubt got where she was with the help of none other than Tony Blair though, a little discussed fact: https://jacobin.com/2021/02/jacinda-ardern-new-zealand-labour-prime-minister. Watch that guy, he seems to have become more powerful since officially resigning from UK politics to focus on his 'institute'...

0 ( +4 / -4 )

its good that she is gone.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Totally agree and we need so many more female politicians like her in Japan.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Ardern's resignation shows that women still face an uphill battle in politics

This header is bull. If you can’t take heat, man or woman, stay out of politics.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Ardern's resignation shows that women still face an uphill battle in politics

How does it show that? She basically said herself she's resigning as she doesn't have the energy to do the job fully, reading between the lines she wants to spend time with her family, so how does her resignation connect to an uphill struggle for women in politics?

It doesn't and nothing in the article connects those two things.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I agree that the questions and comments about prominent womens appearance should stop but men do also face power struggles and ousting's and it's down to the same power politics at play, not sexism. Women can be rubbish leaders too you know.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Watch that guy, he seems to have become more powerful since officially resigning from UK politics to focus on his 'institute'...

Tony Blair. A character so insidious that snake-oil salesmen seem like paragons of virtue in comparison.

That same article states that Ardern is

...a career politician with a degree in communications who worked as a senior policy adviser to Tony Blair’s government, in many ways, Ardern is the perfect embodiment of this new breed of media-savvy, professional Labour politician.

So she's always been a party hack focused on messaging, not of substance. She's never had a job outside politics, so she really has little idea how people function in the real world, hence the incompetence lurking right below the manufactured facade of kindness.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Women can be rubbish leaders too you know

Yes. Liz Truss didn’t reach the level of rubbish.

Looking at the UK over the past few years, Ardern was far better than Johnson or Truss.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Interesting opinion piece about a women leader in charge of an economy with a lower GDP than the state of South Carolina, or Alabama.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Interesting opinion piece about a women leader in charge of an economy with a lower GDP than the state of South Carolina, or Alabama.

Yes. She's so unimportant that you just can't stop reading articles about her and commenting on them.

What uphill battle? She attained the position that is at the top of the hill in NZ politics.

Getting to the top of a hill isn't an uphill battle? I know geography is hard but...

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Interesting opinion piece about a women leader in charge of an economy with a lower GDP than the state of South Carolina, or Alabama.

Surely American states are irrelevant to this topic. It’s something that only New Zealand voters can understand. /s

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Yes! Being a WOKE male leader is easier than being a WOKE female leader. Trudeau is still there! If he's a woman, he would have been gone too.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Go woke, go br…Hang on.

Go woke, win elections?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Bob FosseToday  03:53 pm JST

Surely American states are irrelevant to this topic. It’s something that only New Zealand voters can understand. /s

Then you'd be wrong because more than half the article is about women leaders from countries other than NZ.

One of those countries is the United States,

South Carolina is a state in the US.

Nikki Haley (go Google!) is a female who was the governor of South Carolina recently. She led a state that has a higher GDP than NZ.

Oh Bob, you're too easy. You walked right into that one.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

when photo says more than you can admit....

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

JimizoToday  01:39 pm JST

Women can be rubbish leaders too you know

Yes. Liz Truss didn’t reach the level of rubbish.

Looking at the UK over the past few years, Ardern was far better than Johnson or Truss.

Yeah she sure was but I wasn't actually saying Ardern was rubbish, I actually quite liked her from what I heard of her. If, however, a female leader is ousted because they're rubbish, it's nonsense to pull the sexism card.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@kniknaknokkaer

Agree with that. If I think of the three female leaders of the UK, Thatcher was ousted because she basically went nuts, May lost a majority in an election she didn’t need to call and lost the respect of the party and Truss was a total car crash.

All 3 had to go. The fact they were female didn’t add or subtract much from what I could see.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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