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Kim T. Rivers: Jacinda Ardern's leadership legacy compels us to face down the 'double-bind' bias facing many women in office

Effective Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern stepped down as prime minister of New Zealand. You might not know much about her, but this is a huge loss.

Since the advent of agriculture, most cultures have viewed space as divided into two realms: public or private. The private sphere consisted of home, garden and children and was considered the province of women. The public sphere was the world of work, including politics, and it belonged to men.

While women have made significant strides in getting elected, there remains a persistent gender gap in politics. This is not just an American phenomenon. Even today, most countries have never had a female head of state, so when women like Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel rise to lead their nations, they receive heavy scrutiny.

Women in politics face a persistent “double-bind” bias. There remain pervasive and insidious expectations rooted in the model of gender-based public and private spheres. Leadership qualities often rewarded in men often are penalized in women. Women who take decisive or assertive actions are perceived as aggressive, unfeminine and unlikeable. Women leaders often face impossible dilemmas. They are held to higher standards of competency than their male counterparts, while being criticized for choosing competence over being well-liked.

Enter Jacinda Ardern, who became New Zealand’s 40th prime minister in 2017. At the age of 37, Ardern was the world’s youngest head of state and one of only two who have given birth while in office (second to Benazir Bhutto). As Ardern steps down, it is important to reflect on what made her so special as well as the challenges she and so many other women face when they serve as political leaders.

When Ardern campaigned for prime minister, she called for free university education, reductions in immigration restrictions, decriminalization of abortion, legalization of cannabis, and the creation of new programs to alleviate child poverty. More broadly, she promised a “fairer deal” for the marginalized.But during her tenure, Ardern faced a dramatic series of events that made achieving these goals extremely difficult even as a peacetime prime minister.

A horrific March 2019 terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques resulted in the loss of 51 lives and injuries to 50 others. On Dec. 9, 2019, Whakaari volcano erupted. There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption. Almost half lost their lives, and the others were seriously injured.

When COVID-19 quickly evolved into a global disaster, Ardern oversaw the country’s successful response to the pandemic with science-driven hardline policies. Her government used the motto “go hard and go early” as its approach. Unlike the United States, New Zealand contained the outbreak quickly. Although New Zealand was slow to roll out its vaccination program, which did not begin until February 2021, a year later nearly 80 percent of the population was fully vaccinated.

Ardern also had to deal with the emergence of an extremely militant street movement opposed to all COVID restrictions and the highly successful vaccination program, which culminated in protestors camping outside Parliament for 24 days in February and March 2022. The protest ended with a riot as police moved in to clear the area.

Despite all these crises, her government reduced child poverty from 22.8 percent in 2018 to 16.3 percent in 2021, raised welfare benefit levels above inflation for the first time in decades, increased the minimum wage, increased funding for domestic violence services by $52 million, and introduced a new tax rate of 39 percent on earnings above $180,000 per year. These reforms made a tangible material difference for many working-class people.

Most notably and in contrast to the U.S., New Zealand’s parliament passed a bill in March 2022 decriminalizing abortion and allowing women to abort up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. The procedure was removed from the country’s Crimes Act, and the requirement that two doctors must approve an abortion (and only if there was a “serious danger” to the pregnant woman’s health) was eliminated.

In a more chilling permutation of the double-bind bias, Ardern will likely require an unprecedented level of security for a former New Zealand prime minister. While in office she was the target of some of the darkest and most extreme online abuse. According to University of Auckland internet researchers, Ardern faced up to 90 times more online vitriol (including threats of sexual torture) than other high-profile figures. Ongoing police protection for retired leaders is unusual in New Zealand, where politicians are typically able to revert to life as private citizens once they retire, but this may not be possible for Ardern.

Since her announced resignation, much of the analysis of Ardern’s accomplishments has been trivial. Little has been said about the monumental accomplishments that she achieved during the six years of her tenure.

If humanity is to truly thrive, we must expose and eliminate deeply rooted sexist behaviors that extend into the political arena. We can use the deft leadership exemplified by Jacinda Ardern to reflect on what we do, or don’t do, to enable the double-bind bias.

The challenge to staying silent and looking the other way is before us. It’s time to reevaluate our expectations and definitions of what makes a good leader.

Kim T. Rivers is a staff member of Elizabeth Freeman Center. She is president of the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield and an adjunct faculty member at Berkshire Community College.

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