22nd Sep 2023


What Europe can learn from Jacinda Ardern's leadership

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The theme of this year's International Women's Day is achieving gender equality and empowerment through innovation, technological change and education in the digital age.

The impact of women's access to technology in generating change and development cannot be overstated. Yet as the world becomes even more complex, challenging and uncertain, it is time to travel down an even more transformational road.

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  • How many male leaders would have the honesty to admit 'there's nothing left in the tank to do justice to my job'?

On 8 March this year, instead of declaratory flourishes on the well-known benefits of women's power, those working for diversity, inclusion and equity must dig deeper.

The conversation on increasing women's representation in leadership roles must be combined with actions which nurture and empower female leaders so that they can combine authority with patience and power with generosity, kindness and concern. Such a transformational redefinition of women's power is urgent.

Leaders today, male and female, are struggling to tackle the inter-linked risks of war — even nuclear conflict — as well as rising inequalities, far right populism, climate change and more. Their focus is on zero-sum games, military might and dangerous inter-state rivalries, not on working together.

'Superman' model has failed

Such approaches have outlived their usefulness. Embedded in patriarchy, the old, tired and failing 'Superman' narrative of leadership must be discarded.

Domestic and global complexities require building new and so-far unexplored leadership skills which are often decried as feminine and "soft".

In politics as well as in business, tech, development, finance and trade, the emphasis on numbers is only part of the solution.

Attention must be paid to nurturing and empowering women so that they become more than just female versions of their male counterparts.

The focus must shift to the quality of women in power, their ability to be unashamedly feminine, authentically feminist and inclusive.

New Zealand's former prime minister Jacinda Ardern is vivid proof that it can be done.

Ardern, who was just 37 when first elected as prime minister in 2017, pledged from the outset to lead a "transformative government" that would meaningfully address New Zealand's issues of child poverty, housing and social inequality. In 2019, she unveiled a ground-breaking 'Wellbeing Budget' designed to turn campaign pledges into action.

After a rare landslide election victory in 2020, Ardern formed the most diverse government in New Zealand's history, with more members of parliament than ever who were women, people of colour, LGBTQ and Indigenous.

At the same time, she doubled down on developing and displaying her empathy, compassion and impressive communication skills.

Her sensitivity in the wake of a volcanic eruption at Whakaari / White Island, the swiftness with which she banned assault-style weapons in the wake of a mass terrorist shooting in Christchurch, and her effectiveness at keeping New Zealand largely Covid-free have all been frequently cited as being among her greatest accomplishments.

Another response to the attacks was the "Christchurch Call" — a global initiative led by Ardern and French president Emmanuel Macron to urge tech giants and other governments to commit to combating the spread of extremism on social media.

Compassion and honesty

These remain important achievements but more importantly, it is the manner in which she achieved success that was remarkable.

Ardern was not afraid of acting as a woman, showing her true feelings, her "soft" feminine side and also her compassion.

During her five years as the world's only truly feminist leader, Ardern, like most other women in the public eye, was subjected to increasingly heated gendered abuse, including death threats.

The job took its toll, a fact that Ardern acknowledged with grace and elegance as she announced her resignation.

Sadly, none of the current crop of female leaders in Europe or elsewhere really pass muster.

Some, especially in Europe, think it is all about creating a "feminist foreign policy" which focuses on helping women in faraway lands. But basic concepts of geopolitical rivalry and competition remain unchanged.

Others steer clear of constructive ways to help women in Iran and Afghanistan — for example by pointing out the many ways in which Western sanctions are causing endless human devastation — in favour of displays of either performative solidarity or amplified versions of corrosive Orientalist "us and them" tropes.

In order to bring about change, as Rafia Zakaria points out, authentic women leaders must oppose narrow "white feminism" narratives which are embedded in complacency and privilege as well as in systemic racism.

Authentic women leaders can come from the north and the south, the east or the west. They can be rich or poor, young or old, black, brown or white.

What these women have in common despite their differences is a belief in peace, and a commitment to diversity and building an inclusive environment where everyone can be heard and respected equally. They know how to share power and use it in a responsible and transparent manner.

And when the going gets too much, they know there is no shame in saying: "there's nothing left in the tank to do justice to my job".

The former New Zealand leader is entitled to take a break from public life. Now we need to work on keeping her legacy alive.

Here's hoping that once she replenishes her flagging energy, she will be back in politics, hopefully in a global role. The world needs Ardern's style of empowered female leaders and International Women's Day this year should underline that.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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