Leading two small countries on opposite sides of the planet, Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern have both won widespread respect and admiration for their strong, courageous and determined leadership. They are both women who have smashed through glass ceilings to reach the summit.
Sturgeon is the first woman (and longest serving person) to hold the office of first minister of Scotland. Ardern is the first leader of New Zealand (and second in the world, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto) to give birth while in office. They both defended liberal policies and steered their countries through numerous crises with their calm, visible leadership.
But it is perhaps in their exit from office that the parallels are the most striking. Sturgeon’s resignation speech had many echoes of Ardern’s speech in January announcing her decision to stand down. Both cited the immense personal toll of leadership: long hours, lack of privacy, time away from family, and the human cost. Two women known for their feminism and their candour were willing to acknowledge that it is not possible to fire on all cylinders forever, and that once burnout hits, it is time to let someone else have a turn.
It is a running joke that quitting politics “to spend more time with the family” is a euphemism for being forced out for political reasons. For sure, each has faced her own challenges in recent months – Sturgeon is currently embroiled in the controversy surrounding transgender rights in Scotland, while Ardern was facing declining popularity and the prospect of losing the next general election.
But both still commanded the leadership of their party and the respect of their nation, and neither was under any imminent pressure to call it quits. In Sturgeon’s case, as she herself pointed out, she has weathered many a political storm. The current one is by no means the greatest challenge she has faced in her nine years as first minister. Indeed, in both cases the announcement came as a surprise. Both leaders chose their own moment to exit, and both chose to quit while they were still winning.
The fact that these exits come as such a shock is, in part, because of the stark contrast with recent examples of men who have attempted to cling onto office even after they had been shown the door. The former US president, Donald Trump refused to accept the outcome of a democratic election and stands accused of inciting insurrection in a desperate bid to hold onto power.
Boris Johnson faced an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations while UK prime minister that finally forced him to accept the inevitable. The idea that office is a duty, and that one should serve only as long as it is in the public interest to do so, is a concept lost on too many of our political elites. Seeing two leaders step back as soon as they felt that they were no longer the best person for the job, rather than waiting to be forced out, is a refreshing and inspiring change.
Women in politics
How much of this different approach to politics can be explained by the fact that both Ardern and Sturgeon are women? My research on women leaders reminds us that we must avoid being quick to resort to gender stereotypes. The qualities of humility and duty are often seen as feminine traits, yet they are certainly not shared by all women, nor are they qualities possessed uniquely by women.
But we do also know that women in public life tend to be judged more harshly than men. The total commitment and devotion to the job that each leader gave throughout her tenure took its toll, but it is harder for women to survive in public life without excelling at their job. It’s unlikely that Johnson would have got away with as much if he were a woman.
It is also the case that women politicians around the world face violence and intimidation for having the audacity to be powerful and opinionated. Sturgeon hinted at this, referencing the growing “brutality” of life as a politician.
She also spoke about how ideas about her have become fixed in the public mind. While this is likely true of her male counterparts, it is an unusual comment to make when explaining a decision to leave office. Women’s growing presence in politics has been associated with political renewal – the replacement of the “male, stale and pale” with a new generation of politicians. The desire for renewal has now come full circle: we see women leaders seeking to avoid the staleness of their male predecessors by knowing when to quit.
Sturgeon and Ardern have both been trailblazers for women in politics. They have demonstrated that integrity, compassion and openness are traits that are not only possible but desirable in our political leaders. They have also shown that stereotypically “feminine” traits, and the “masculine” traits more traditionally associated with world leaders, do not have to be mutually exclusive.
But while both women have shown the ambition to reach the summit, and the aggression needed to win political battles, neither leader is defined by these qualities. Instead, they have demonstrated a balanced approach to leadership that many of their counterparts would do well to follow.