Jacinda Ardern announced her decision to step down as New Zealand prime minister showing her characteristic modesty.
“I have given my absolute all to being prime minister but it has also taken a lot out of me,” she said on Thursday (January 19). “You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unplanned and unexpected challenges that inevitably come along.”
Here was a highly regarded — at home and on the world stage — and astute female politician vacating the top job on her own terms. The move was greeted with universal shock.
She will be missed and her decision should be respected. It underscores the challenges of achieving diversity in politics and business. It’s not just about getting women there, but keeping them. We want politicians like Ardern to endure because they are the kind that change the narrative.
When political ambitions and private lives collide
Ardern and young female leaders — including Finland’s PM Sanna Marin and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen — who have emerged in the past decade stand as a counterpoint to the loud, attention-seeking and narcissistic male leaders riding a wave of populist sentiment. They show us that countries can be run not only with force and bravado, but with compassion as well as a sense of humour. You can be a deft politician and an empathetic one, while having a laugh along the way.
Politics remains a tough arena for women. Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, endured a barrage of sexist attacks in parliament and in the media that prompted her now famous Misogyny Speech in October 2012 that went viral.
Ardern’s decision to stand down also shows that women continue to be torn between their political ambitions and private lives. In 2018, she became the first female prime minister to give birth in office since Pakistan’s late Benazir Bhutto. Tanya Plibersek, then deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party, ruled out in 2019 running for the top job because she could not “reconcile” responsibilities to her family with being leader of her party. Another Australian federal member of parliament, Kate Ellis, quit politics at the 2019 election to spend more time with her children.
More recently, sentiment against Ardern turned and she suffered in opinion polls. She faced a surge in personal threats that became more explicit and vicious as conspiracy and anti-vaccination groups, angered over her handling of the pandemic, went on the attack.
Ardern achieved rock-star status after she became the world’s youngest female leader at 37. She could feature on the cover of Vogue and spin tunes, manage crises, while also making other global leaders listen and take notice. Ardern faced her share of insulting questions from the media — just last month she and Finland’s Marin were forced to rebuke a journalist who suggested the two world leaders were only meeting because they were young women — but has handled situations with aplomb.
She reformed gun laws after an extremist shooting at two mosques in the South Island city of Christchurch in March 2019 killed 51 people. Her compassion was on display yet again when a volcano off the New Zealand coast erupted in December 2019, resulting in 22 deaths. The pandemic tested her mettle, but she was credited with keeping the virus at bay with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.
Rising above the rough and tumble of politics
When it comes to the country’s Indigenous population, Ardern’s brand of governing was again on display. She appointed Nanaia Mahuta, a Maori woman, in the high-profile portfolio of foreign minister, while her party vowed that schools would have the Maori language integrated into their curriculum by 2025.
Ardern was not above becoming irritated. But it’s a testament to her character that she could rise above the rough and tumble of politics and be a good sport. An official signed copy of a transcript of Ardern insulting an opposition leader (she later apologised via text message) sold for more than NZ$100,000 ($64,000) to raise money for charity.
Like former world No. 1 tennis star Ashleigh Barty’s decision to quit tennis, I suspect our discomfort with Ardern’s announcement has more to do with us craving role models that do everyone proud globally. They are strong, accomplished, assertive, but also display grace under pressure. Now more than ever, the world needs them.
Andreea Papuc is a Bloomberg Opinion editor