In Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, we caught a glimpse of what’s possible when a woman isn’t the first or the only, but simply gets the chance to lead as an individual.
That isn’t to say that Ardern didn’t have to contend with sexism, misogyny, and double standards; she did, regularly. Just last month, in a press conference following a meeting with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Ardern gave a pointed response to a journalist who wondered if the two world leaders had met “because you’re similar in age and got a lot of common stuff there.”
The reality, of course, as Ardern said, is that men continue to hold a disproportionate share of leadership positions in politics — or any other sphere, really. And yet, we can’t deny that it’s become less exceptional to see women leading at the highest level. Maybe that’s why the Prime Minister’s now-famous retort resonated with so many of us: “Because two women meet, it’s not simply because of their gender.”
The outgoing New Zealand Prime Minister acknowledged that there is certainly more work to be done when it comes to achieving gender equality in politics, but also made a point of saying that the lack of equity wasn’t the cause for her departure.
Speaking to NowThis News shortly after her surprise announcement, Ardern said, “My strong message to women in leadership, and to girls who may be considering leadership in the future — this is a place where a foundation has been laid, long before me, to make it possible for us to be in these roles in a way that in the past it just wasn’t in the same way.
You can have a family and be in these roles. You can lead in your own style,” said Ardern.
When she was first elected, at 37, Ardern was the world’s youngest female leader. Over the course of her five-and-a-half-year tenure, she regularly drew global attention and praise for her decisive, empathetic and transparent brand of leadership. From navigating the Christchurch tragedy to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Ardern made difficult calls under extreme pressure. More often than not, her decisions proved effective and widely popular.
She also didn’t hesitate to act on her values, even when it meant acting alone; Ardern was the only sitting Head of State to sign on to an open letter — in a successful campaign led by Vital Voices, For Freedoms, and a coalition of Iranian and American women leaders — demanding that UN Member States vote to remove the Islamic Republic of Iran from the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
It’s not insignificant that Ardern came into office as New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister. Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark both paved the way for Ardern, who brought her whole self to the role and refused to shy away from expressing emotion and showing her humanity, even becoming the first world leader to go on maternity leave. When announcing her resignation, she was open about experiencing burnout, saying plainly, “I no longer have enough in the tank.”
In more ways than one, Ardern represented a kind of progress we wouldn’t have thought possible for women in politics even a decade or two ago.
When it comes to women in leadership, we typically see that the first-ever woman to hold a role is met with pressure to conform, go with the flow, and even emulate male peers. The second woman in a position gets compared to her female predecessor and, even though she might have a bit more leeway, her presence as a leader is still exceptional, which makes it precarious.
But something tends to shift when a third woman rises to a particular leadership role. We saw it in Ardern, and now see it in Sanna Marin, Finland’s third female Prime Minister. Both women inherited a legacy of female leadership and, in part because of this, have been able to establish their own, distinct style.
It’s past time that we see more women occupying leadership roles — not only in politics but in every sector. For more than 25 years now, I’ve partnered with thousands of women whose leadership is exceptional — not because of their gender, but because they insist on leading their own way.
Only when we tear down barriers and create more opportunities for more women to rise to leadership will we see more leaders like Ardern, more leaders who prove that strength and empathy can co-exist.