Her resignation is not a clarion call to scrutinize female leaders. Instead, it is another case study in burnout—an ungendered problem.
On January 19, 2023, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation in a surprise move, citing that she just “no longer had enough in the tank” to carry on. This news followed a slew of gender-related headlines—expectedly. Media houses seemed to enjoy their “I told you so” moment, with the BBC posting an archaic and sexist headline: “Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?”
Ardern’s resignation, albeit misconstrued as so, was not a statement-making movement for women. In fact, it was not about gender at all. Her resignation draws our attention to burnout and hustle culture. It also brings our attention to how these issues are often considered women’s problems. Women might be more burned out than men, but the problem affects all, irrespective of gender.
Women in leadership positions: lauded and scrutinized
When Ardern came to power in 2017, women felt empowered. At just 37 years old, she became the youngest PM of New Zealand in over a century, had a baby while in office, got married, proactively implemented gun control and expertly managed Covid-19 and a volcano eruption. She did it all, with empathy and proactivity, garnering global praise for her crisis management skills. In December 2019, when the White Island volcano eruption happened, within an hour, she was informing people about the calamity, her plan and the resources at hand. Many called her “the best leader ever” and even expressed hope that she would lead other countries as well.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the deadly Christchurch shootings in March 2019, Ardern addressed citizens, with an astonishing understanding of what both the shooter and people required. The shooter desired notoriety, which Ardern refused to give. Citizens sought action, so she banned assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics.
Yet, her leadership was often subjected to sexist remarks, with a reporter once asking if Jacinda Ardern and Finland PM Anna Sorkis were only meeting because they were of similar ages. The reporter asked, “A lot of people will be wondering: Are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and have got a lot of common stuff there — when you got into politics and stuff — or can Kiwis actually expect to see more deals between our two countries down the line?”
Reporters also frequently pried into her private life, asking about her plans to get married and have kids. Some even questioned whether she was choosing between her career and children. Besides reporters, people in top positions, too, made misogynistic remarks, such as one economist saying that Ardern would need to prove that she was more than “lipstick on a pig”. If these comments made your insides curl up in disgust, well, same. At the same time, they really make you think about what it must be like to be a woman in politics.
To err is woman
When Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 as the U.S. President following the Watergate scandal and impeachment hearings, no one questioned whether men at large were capable of ruling with honesty. Similarly, when Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned in July 2022 after dealing his country a horrible economic hand, no one questioned whether men could make reliable financial decisions for their country. However, Ardern resigns after admitting that she can no longer lead a country, and it is suddenly portrayed as a gendered narrative on women.
The real lesson: Know when it’s time to stop and prioritize your health
Ardern’s resignation is an admirable one on multiple fronts. For one, her stepping down indicates her grasp of boundaries and mental health. Secondly, it shows that she genuinely cares for her country. She could have chosen to lead despite not having enough in the tank, but she wasn’t drunk on power, and she stepped down. She told reporters, “I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.” She understood that continuing to lead while in a bad shape mentally could make her a poorer leader who might make decisions that could negatively affect the country. Your duty to self is as noble as your duty to others, given that they are both interconnected.
This goes not just for global leaders but for everyday employees, too. Covid turned our attention to burnout and how it can be detrimental to us in the long run. Sometimes, you have to walk away from your job for the benefit of all involved. Ardern noted, “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”
Despite the positive takeaways, some critics argue that Ardern may be quitting office to avoid being ousted eventually. Given that her party is facing poor poll numbers and elections are approaching, it might have been necessary for her to step down and give way to someone new.
By February 7, 2023, Ardern will officially step down as New Zealand PM.
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