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Women like Ardern and Sturgeon are particularly vulnerable to the brutality of politics

Ardern and Sturgeon

After eight years in office, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced this week that she would be resigning due to the “chronic pressures” of her position, drawing parallels with the resignation of former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for the same reason. Even Sturgeon acknowledged a newfound “brutality” towards politicians in recent years. Each received high marks for the way they ran their respective administrations. Among the many political challenges they had faced, both women had also been subjected to vicious sexist attacks.

Sturgeon and Ardern were facing significant political challenges at the time of their resignations. Ardern’s popularity at home was dwindling to the point where she was in danger of losing the next general election. To add insult to injury, Sturgeon resigned shortly after the UK government blocked Scottish legislation on gender recognition, a campaign she had fully supported.

However, for female leaders in particular, deciding to step down takes place against a backdrop of intense hostility and scrutiny. Scotland’s longest serving first minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed concern about the deterrent effect of sexism on women last year, saying that the problem had gotten worse since she first entered politics three decades ago. Ardern faced “a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country,” according to New Zealand’s former prime minister, Helen Clark.

According to Silvana Koch-Mehrin, president and founder of the global network Women Political Leaders and former vice-president of the European Parliament, while social media has amplified the nature of criticism of politicians generally, what female leaders face is unique.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin

Koch-Mehrin warned, “You’re seen as representing women and that comes with a kind of specific gendered attacks,” in addition to the arduous task of leading the country.

There is still a significant gap in women’s representation in political leadership around the globe. As of September 2022, only 21% of government ministers were women, and at the current rate of progress, gender parity won’t be reached for roughly half a century. When they reach the top, women leaders face more hostility than their male counterparts, according to the available research. According to a recent study conducted in the United States, female elected officials face triple the risk of being the target of abuse and harassment compared to their male counterparts.

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That’s in part because women are evaluated in different ways than men. Professor at Oxford University Michael Smets said, “There is ample research that female leaders are scrutinised more harshly and held to a higher standard in their jobs.” It is true “especially when they are trailblazers in their organisations — or nations,” he said.

Just last year, a video surfaced showing Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a party, and she came under intense scrutiny. There was so much public outcry that she had to submit to a drugs test as punishment for the allegations against her. More than 120 Belgian politicians, including several women, signed an open letter last year denouncing the “sexist, sexual, and psychological violence by government officials” that some women in politics experience on a daily basis.

Better gender representation among decision makers has its benefits, but it comes with increasing difficulties for women in politics. For example, in India, there were 62% more drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils than in councils led by men, and research from King’s College London shows that women policy makers are more likely to focus on issues related to healthcare, welfare, and education that benefit the most vulnerable members of society.

Sturgeon’s and Ardern’s departures provide an opportunity to re-evaluate what we expect from our leaders, as Scotland and New Zealand try to make sense of the legacy of their respective leaders and chart their respective futures. Said Koch-Mehrin. “It’s about what kind of political environment do we have, what kind of leaders are successful in that,” she mused. No one should be reluctant to enter public service.

Daniel Harrison
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