Jacinda Ardern was an inspiration to women in politics

Jacinda Ardern was an inspiration to women in politics

Jan 12, 2023, 2:52:02 PM UTC
As New Zealand’s 40th PM steps down, we look at female political representation across Europe and how Volt intends to bring gender parity to politics.
Jacinda Ardern in Brussels // Picture: Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis

The news that Jacinda Ardern was to stand down as New Zealand’s head of government with immediate effect was met around the world with dismay. Although her tenure as prime minister should not be viewed without criticism, her presence on the global stage underscored the importance of having intelligent, progressive women in politics.

A new way of doing politics

Ardern’s contribution to New Zealand politics is clear. During her six years as PM, she steered the country through the COVID-19 pandemic with decisiveness and humanity, banned semi-automatic weapons after a white supremacist murdered fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch, and put in the place the most diverse New Zealand government in history, elevating the voices of Indigenous and LGBTQ+ people.

But Ardern has always been viewed globally as more than just the New Zealand premier. Elected as the world’s second-youngest female head of government, and only the second elected world leader to give birth while in office (Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto being the first), Ardern shows how women can not only hold their own in a largely male-dominated domain, but can do politics in a way that goes beyond the traditional strategies of aggression, domination and one-upmanship.

For Volt Europa Co-President, Francesca Romana D’Antuono, Ardern’s empathic leadership style represented ‘a new way of doing politics: more humane and caring, but not weak; the kind of leadership we need to meet the challenges of our modern times.’

The British Labour MP Jess Phillips agrees, noting how Ardern ‘presented the world with the kind of leadership that uniquely leant on her emotional intelligence’.

Ardern’s humane leadership shows why encouraging women to get into politics is about more than simple representative democracy; it’s also about having the most nuanced understanding of the world and its problems, and being open-minded in finding the best solutions.

Without women, we only see half the picture

In a world facing some of the gravest challenges in history, fresh ideas based on varied perspectives are essential. As Francesca Romana D’Antuono asks, ‘How can we believe that we are going to build a resilient and thriving society without the perspective of half of the population?’

The European Commission agrees, noting that equal participation of men and women in decision-making brings ‘benefits to the EU’s economic growth and competitiveness’.

While we clearly cannot make universal connections between gender and progressive policy, on balance, the presence of women in municipal councils has been shown to accelerate the expansion of public childcare — a key element of bringing more women into the workplace and improving economic competitiveness.

Moreover, women in political areas such as foreign policy and defence can introduce approaches to diplomacy that are more intersectional, collaborative, and focused on development rather than expansion.

But the reality is that women remain very much in a minority in all political spheres. Across the EU, just over 30 per cent of MPs of national governments are women, ranging from 46 per cent in Sweden, down to just 13 per cent in Hungary. Meanwhile, 39 per cent of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are women.

To address this, Volt calls for all political parties to ensure equal representation of men and women on their candidate lists. Volt, itself, expects its own gender-alternating lists to include at least 50 per cent female candidates, and in the forthcoming provincial elections in the Netherlands, the majority of the lead candidates will be women.

Furthermore, Volt makes a point of ensuring gender-balance within its own internal structures. According to its statutes, the Board of Volt must be gender-balanced, while each formal position in the European team must be shared between a male/non-binary and female/non-binary Volt member.

Keeping women in politics when politics doesn’t want them

But bringing more women into politics isn’t as simple as introducing candidate quotas. There are significant structural and cultural barriers to women’s participation, including issues around childcare, access to training, and a relative lack of funding for women’s political campaigns. However, one of the key barriers for women in the public eye remains the appalling treatment they often receive from a disgruntled electorate.

Although Jacinda Ardern cited burnout as the main reason for her resignation, colleagues have suggested that the extraordinary levels of abuse and threats she experienced during her tenure had taken their toll.

Sadly, Ardern’s experience is not uncommon. Abuse of members of parliament is rife, especially of women, and much of it is received through social media. A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that, during the 2020 US presidential campaign, tweets about female candidates were much more likely to be abusive than those aimed at male candidates (15 per cent versus 5 to 10 per cent), and women of colour were especially targeted.

Volt takes the view that bringing women into politics (and keeping them there) requires a much broader approach to women’s societal roles in general. This will include:

  1. Mentoring and training: Supporting women working in sectors in which they are underrepresented (such as politics)
  2. Access to childcare: Providing high-quality, affordable support.
  3. Ratification of the Istanbul Convention: Ending persistent discrimination and violence against women and minorities. The Convention provides a framework for legislation and policy on preventing and combating violence against women, and includes references to stalking and forms of psychological violence.

Ardern as example

By showing the world that there is a different way of doing politics, Jacinda Ardern allowed politically-active women to feel legitimised in a sphere that remains, sadly, hostile to them. Now that she has made her exit (at least for the time being), it is up to us to ensure that we take her example. If we do not, we will continue to approach the world’s problems underprepared and under-resourced, without the knowledge, insights and perspectives of half of the population.

This article has been authored by Kate Fistric.