Watching her speech I was struck by how Ardern has had to navigate the complicated gendered expectations that often create barriers to women’s success.
Women are often expected to be unfailingly kind and patient, and to nurture those around them. If women demonstrate the type of leadership typically praised in men — ambitious, swaggering, domineering — they are seen as unfeminine, unlikable, and even illegitimate leaders. To understand how that plays out in practice, take a look at the scholarship of Victoria L. Brescoll, a professor at Yale who studies how biased perceptions of women undermine their success on the individual level and reinforce gender gaps more broadly in society.
Ardern, as I wrote in this 2020 column, built a public image that tied her leadership to traits that women are usually praised for. For instance, when Ardern addressed the nation after the country began its strict Covid lockdown in March 2020, she conducted an informal Facebook Live session on her phone while wearing a cozy sweatshirt, and made sure to let people know that she had just finished putting her toddler to bed. By portraying herself as maternal, friendly, and cooperative, she remained extremely popular even as she locked down the country.
Ardern’s tenure, and particularly her handling of the pandemic, showed how those stereotypically feminine traits could be valuable in leaders. “What we learned with Covid is that, actually, a different kind of leader can be very beneficial,” Alice Evans, a lecturer at King’s College London, who studies how women gain power in public life, told me for that 2020 article. “Perhaps people will learn to recognize and value risk-averse, caring and thoughtful leaders.”
That’s not to say, of course, that Ardern never experienced sexist criticism or abuse. Just hours into her first term as prime minister, an interviewer asked her whether she had chosen her career over motherhood, for instance. After she gave birth to her daughter while in office — the first leader to do so in nearly 30 years — she was criticized for taking just six weeks’ maternity leave. New Zealand’s police have recorded escalating numbers of violent threats against her in recent years, including rape and death threats.