The powerful, gutsy, and uncompromising leadership of Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has earned them global acclaim. Both ladies have broken barriers to reach the top in their fields.
Sturgeon has held the position of first minister of Scotland longer than anybody else (and she is the first woman to do so). Ardern is the first head of state in New Zealand to have a child while in office, and only the second in the world to do so (after Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan). Both presidents were prominent and steady as they guided their nations through difficult times and supported liberal ideals.
The similarities between them become most evident, though, during their departure from office. Similarities might be drawn between Sturgeon’s resignation speech and Ardern’s in January. They both spoke on the human cost of leadership, including the long hours, loss of privacy, and time away from family. Two well-known feminists were honest enough to admit that it’s impossible to keep going full steam ahead indefinitely and that when exhaustion sets in, it’s time to pass the torch.
Leaving politics “to spend more time with the family” is often seen as a euphemism for being pushed out for political reasons, and hence is the subject of a recurring joke. Sturgeon is presently immersed in the debate around transgender rights in Scotland, while Ardern was dealing with dwindling support and the possibility of losing the next general election, but each has had her own unique obstacles in recent months.
Neither was under any immediate pressure to step down, since both still had the mantle of party leadership and the esteem of the country. Sturgeon said that she had been through several political upheavals and has emerged unscathed. In her nine years as prime minister, she has confronted far more difficult situations than the present one. The news was indeed unexpected in both instances. Both leaders, at their own discretion, stepped down while they were ahead.
The unexpectedness of these departures may be attributed, in part, to the prevalence of male politicians in recent years who have stubbornly clung to power after being forced out. Former US President Donald Trump is accused of encouraging rebellion after refusing to recognize the results of a democratic election.
As UK prime minister, Boris Johnson was confronted with an unprecedented wave of ministry resignations, forcing him to accept the inevitable. A large portion of our political elites have lost sight of the fact that holding public office is a responsibility and that they should remain in government only as long as it is in the public interest to do so. Rather than waiting to be driven out, it is refreshing and inspirational to see two leaders voluntarily stand down when they realized they were no longer the right person for the position.
Women in political office
How much of the differences between Ardern and Sturgeon’s political philosophies can be attributed to the fact that they are both women? My study of prominent women has taught me the importance of not falling back on stereotypical assumptions based on one’s gender. Humility and a sense of obligation are commonly associated with women, yet they are by no means universally held values or possessed exclusively by females.
However, it is also well-known that women in the public eye are routinely subjected to harsher scrutiny than males are. Each leader paid a high price for the years of service she provided her country, but women have a far tougher time making it in politics if they don’t succeed at what they do. If Johnson had been a woman, he probably couldn’t have gotten away with what he did.
It is also true that women politicians throughout the globe are subjected to assault and intimidation for expressing their own strong opinions. Sturgeon alluded to this, bringing up the increasing “brutality” of political life.
She also discussed how the public’s perception of her has solidified through time. This may be true of her male colleagues, but it’s an odd thing to say when trying to excuse a resignation. An increasing number of women hold political office, which has been linked to political regeneration via the introduction of a fresh crop of leaders in place of the “male, stale, and pale” of the past. Now, it’s women leaders who are trying to escape the same tired routine as their male forebears by recognizing when to call it quits and usher in a new era of reinvention.
Sturgeon and Ardern are two of the most prominent political women in history. They have shown that political leaders can and should have qualities like honesty, compassion, and openness. They have also shown the lack of inherent incompatibility between stereotypically “feminine” attributes and the “masculine” ones often associated with international leaders.
Although both women have shown the will to succeed and the aggressiveness required to win political conflicts, these characteristics are not what make them exceptional leaders. Rather, they have shown a well-rounded style of leadership that many of their contemporaries may learn from.