New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the power of "feminine" leadership

New Zealand’s PM is leading effectively with empathy and compassion, destroying outdated gender stereotypes

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 25, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Getty/Marty Mellville)
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Getty/Marty Mellville)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern continues to make headlines in the aftermath of the deadly terror attacks earlier this month on two mosques in Christchurch — shootings that claimed the lives of 50 Muslims — for taking swift action to change the country’s gun laws, and for the substance and style of her public responses as a leader.

Photos of Ardern wearing a hijab while visiting survivors, hugging and consoling victims’ families, along with her powerful words of unity during this time of international mourning, have made a deep impression.  Last week, the New York Times’ editorial board praised Ardern's responses in “America Deserves a Leader as Good as Jacinda Ardern,” and called on all world leaders to condemn racism. For the New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote that Ardern has set a new precedent for how a nation grieves after a terrorist attack. An image of her was projected onto Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, last Friday. "Thank you PM @jacindaardern and New Zealand for your sincere empathy and support that has won the respect of 1.5 billion Muslims after the terrorist attack that shook the Muslim community around the world," Dubai Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed wrote on Twitter.

In a time when politicians routinely Tweet statements of “thoughts and prayers” after every mass shooting, Ardern’s active response is a refreshing change, to say the least. The accolades for her are certainly warranted, and they extend beyond the top tiers of U.S. media and fellow international leaders. What's noteworthy about the commentary revealed by a Twitter search is the adjectives used to praise her — empathetic, compassionate, sympathetic, sensitive — are often used to describe femininity, or traits commonly considered to be feminine.

Mainstream media has yet to explore in depth how these leadership qualities are associated with women or the feminine, perhaps because it would serve to perpetuate gender stereotypes. But it's worth noting that the strengths Ardern brings to this crisis are the very same traits that have been used against women seeking leadership positions in the workplace and in the public sector. The image of what a successful leader should be is often coded in traditionally male terms because traditionally in the western world, leaders have been men. Women are often told, either implicitly or explicitly, to embody those traditionally masculine qualities — to be more assertive, commanding and competitive, rather than more empathetic and sensitive — in order to be seen as a competent and successful leader. In other words, be less feminine if you want to be taken seriously.

But emulating men doesn't always work in women’s favor, either. We have seen this in the last U.S. presidential election cycle and also in the current one, female politicians like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Historically, when women stray from stereotypically feminine traits, they are viewed as less “likable.” A dominant woman in politics is likely to be more scrutinized than a dominant man. The catch-22 kicks in when a woman in a position of leadership shows too much of her feminine side — displaying too much emotion in public, for example — and then is seen as weak. It works on men, too. When male leaders display traditionally feminine qualities, they can also be maligned as weak — former House Speaker John Boehner, for example, used to shed tears in public, and Politico’s response was to ask, “Why Does John Boehner Cry So Much?”

With Ardern garnering international praise for leading with so-called feminine traits, the world can see there are signs of strength and success that don't fall within traditional masculine norms. This shift in perception not only benefits women in leadership, but all genders; gender stereotyping is not only an obstacle to women’s rights, but to all human rights.

According to 2018 Pew Research on the public’s view of leadership, only 57 percent of Americans believe being compassionate helps a woman’s chance of being elected to office, and 46 percent of Americans believe it helps men. Honesty and resilience under pressure are considered to be more important. Perhaps as Ardern continues to lead her country out of this tragedy with empathy and compassion, Americans will rethink what they prioritize in a capable leader, too.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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