Comment Writer Colette Fountain reflects on the criticism that women in power deal with, whilst praising the way that female leaders like Jacinda Ardern have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic
I guess it could be said that criticism is part of the job when you’re a politician, and no one is under more scrutiny than a country’s leader. This constant criticism has only been exacerbated by the current pandemic as supporters seem to be gaining respect for their leaders while others have grown more sceptical about the reported ‘success’ of their policies. While all politicians are subject to criticism, for women this is significantly worse.
Growing up as a woman, I’ve always been aware of certain stereotypes of women, particularly for women who hold leadership roles. The Devil Wears Prada is one of my favourite films but it perpetuates some of these stereotypes through the ice-cold editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly who was loosely based on Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. This characterisation is remarkably accurate in reflecting real-world stereotypes of women in power, often being portrayed in the media as having a heart of stone. However, in stark contrast to this stereotype is the argument that women shouldn’t be in power because they are too emotionally weak to cope with the pressure, a view expressed by Donald Trump when he felt women act irrationally because of ‘blood coming out of [their] wherever’. Thus, female leaders are stuck between two very different stereotypes: being seen as weak and too emotional as a leader, or being seen as too cold and lacking emotion, making it virtually impossible to avoid criticism. One of the most notable leaders, Margaret Thatcher, was famous for her ‘Iron Lady’ nickname and was described by Barbara Castle as ‘the best man among them’, reflecting how, in order to succeed (particularly in politics), women must develop traits traditionally viewed as masculine. While these stereotypes can simply be used for comedy, as in the Devil Wears Prada, they can have a damaging impact on women’s career prospects as they are less likely to hold leadership roles: for example, as of 2017, women made up 45% of legal associates but only 22.7% of partners at law firms. If they do manage to overcome these sexist stereotypes to land a leadership role, they are then subjected to far more scrutiny than their male counterparts and may struggle if their employees don’t trust a woman’s leadership ability.
However, during the current global pandemic, we have seen a shift in the ways that female leaders are portrayed as a result of their response to the crisis. While Donald Trump and Boris Johnson continue to struggle, New Zealand has already seemingly recovered, thanks to its female prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Ardern has always been a relatively popular prime minister, having banned ‘military-style’ semi-automatic rifles a mere six days after the Christchurch Mosque shooting. In stark contrast, Trump is yet to impose any restrictions, despite the 417 mass shootings in 2019 alone. Trump is reluctant to impose gun restrictions due to his close ties with the National Rifle Association, and yet Ardern passed legislation despite backlash from pro-gun citizens. This serves as just one example where perhaps women’s capacity for emotion arguably makes them a more suitable leader, or perhaps, due to inevitable criticism, she is less concerned about backlash and will pass legislation regardless. Ardern has also responded incredibly well to the current pandemic, with New Zealand currently having only one active case of Covid-19 as of 29th May, and no new cases emerging in the seven days prior. Out of the 1504 confirmed and probable cases, New Zealand only suffered 22 deaths, again, in stark contrast to the US death toll which has just surpassed 100,000. So, while America is experiencing hundreds of protests by people who feel their liberty is at stake, New Zealand is already lifting its lockdown restrictions and beginning to return to relative normality. It’s no wonder then that Ardern is the most popular prime minister in over a century – she’s always been honest with her citizens, doesn’t seem afraid to admit to mistakes and genuinely wants the best for the country, regardless of how it could damage her reputation.
My hope is that following this pandemic, female leaders will be more common and once in power won’t be subject to the kind of sexist criticism we have previously seen. If our future leaders are going to be anything like Jacinda Ardern, I for one am excited to see what the future holds. Ardern has certainly done a lot to dismantle some of the sexist stereotypes that currently underpin our political systems, and let’s hope it stays that way.
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