Opinion: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proved the power of female leadership

By Kara Alaimo for CNN

It’s no wonder she’s burned out. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who announced her resignation Thursday after more than five years in office, has an extraordinary track record of accomplishments.

Ardern, who entered office at the age of 37 and led her country through numerous crises, saw a meteoric rise on the world stage. But her popularity has waned at home in New Zealand, and on Thursday, she said, “I no longer have enough in the tank to do the job justice.”

Her example, from her speedy response in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to her resolve in the aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch shootings, should make the world re-think its widespread bias against women leaders.

Huge numbers of people still subscribe to the stereotype that men are better suited for political leadership, and the list of countries that currently have a woman as an elected head of state is depressingly short. This is jaw dropping – especially given that there’s plenty of data to suggest that women are more effective leaders.

Under Arden’s leadership, New Zealand has had a remarkably low Covid-19 death rate compared to the rest of the world. Ardern’s swift decision to lock her country down in March 2020 made her early Covid leadership one of the most successful in the world. (Over time, however, many New Zealanders were angered and fatigued by vaccine mandates and strict Covid-19 protocols and protesters ended up camping outside parliament for weeks and setting fire to furniture.)

Similarly, the day after a gunman opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch and killed 51 people in 2019, Ardern promised to change her country’s gun laws. She delivered on that promise in less than a month, with New Zealand’s parliament banning military-style semi-automatic weapons. Under her leadership, New Zealand also passed legislation to combat climate change and tackle child poverty.

Of course, at home in New Zealand, “Jacindamania” has been waning recently, as the country faces significant economic challenges, including an increase in the cost of living and a housing shortage. But, agree or disagree with her politics and policies, it’s clear that Arden delivered on many of her goals during a difficult time for her country and challenged our stereotypes of leadership.

As a woman younger than most heads of state, she rose from relative obscurity to the world stage, where she often led with empathy. She also notably had a baby, becoming only the second elected head of state ever to do so while in office (Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the first). She took six weeks of maternity leave before bringing the baby with her to work, breastfeeding and pumping, and discussing the challenges of balancing motherhood with her job. And now, with her resignation, she has also talked honestly about her burnout. These are all things we don’t often see from our politicians. Her visibility has pushed back against the stereotype of leaders as old white men who don’t do much visible caregiving or frequently discuss their personal challenges.

Of course, Ardern was up against especially disturbing challenges50 threats were made against her in 2021, according to her country’s police – up from 32 in 2020 and 18 in 2019. Women politicians seem to face more threats than their male counterparts – another sign that the world needs to radically change the way women politicians are treated.

And contrary to widespread misperception, women are often effective leaders. In a study published in 2021, researchers at the University of Liverpool and University of Reading compared female-led countries with male-led ones that were close in GDP per capita, population, population density, and population over 65 years of age. They found that Covid outcomes were better in countries led by women, which “may be explained by the proactive policy responses they adopted.”

A growing body of research also finds that women leaders often outperform men on other scores. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of International Affairs found that, in diverse countries, leadership by a woman was correlated with a 6.9% increase in GDP in comparison to having a male leader. In the United States, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Political Science found that women in Congress get on average 9% more money earmarked for their districts than congressmen. And a 2011 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law found that women legislators are more successful than their male counterparts at getting bills they sponsor passed by Congress.

On the world stage, much was made of Ardern’s gender, both because she had her baby in office and because members of the media often focused on it. While Ardern sometimes felt these questions were unfair because men aren’t usually on the receiving end of them, one of the legacies she leaves is a powerful example of why so many people’s beliefs about women politicians are wrong. Next time voters head to the polls, I hope they remember.