What can we learn from the case of Jacinda Ardern?

Catriona McLeod
Information Analyst/Advisorcatriona
Platform Trust

Wouldn’t you know it, just as I was putting the final full stop on the blog I had written, Andrew Little stepped down as Labour leader and Jacinda Ardern was nominated as his replacement.  As a woman of a similar age, I couldn’t very well miss this opportunity to say a few things about my experience of being a woman of our generation in New Zealand.

Many years ago during my time working in the community development team of a local council in Western Australia, I had an interesting exchange with the CEO.  She knew that I was moving on in my travels and wanted to help me to rework my CV to better reflect what she perceived as my skillset – she felt I was underselling myself (a typical female trait).  During the meeting she paused and observed that she had always found Kiwi women more brave and capable than Australian women.  I found this quite surprising coming from a female CEO and having previously worked for female lawyers and others in Australia.

Having now lived and worked in Australia, Italy, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Canada I have come to believe that New Zealand society does seem to be much more comfortable than others with female strength and leadership, and we can therefore exhibit these qualities more readily than women in other societies.  Certainly among my peers there feels like less immediate and obvious prejudices against women than previous generations of women have faced.  However, over the years of working with incredible women and men, and during my time as a business owner, I began to see the many ways that I and other women around me were routinely and insidiously made to feel and appear less.

There’s really no need to document the many incidents that have taken place for me in various professional and personal settings over the years.  Neither is there a need for me to discuss the evidence that tells us why we have a gender pay gap, why women are found around fewer boardroom tables or behind management desks, why violence against women is high in this country and why caring professions are female dominated.  Yes, women in New Zealand are often confident and strong.  But they are also daily subjected to disrespect and doubt about their abilities, and it’s tiring!

Jacinda is not only fighting harder than her male colleagues to earn respect for her actions and the words coming out of her mouth rather than her wardrobe choices and ability to smile warmly, she is also fighting against ageism.  They will claim that she is inexperienced despite 9 years in parliament and many more years of political engagement and action.  They will claim that she has a lack of maturity, but what’s wrong with enthusiasm and optimism in a person instead of cynicism, burn-out and resistance to change?  That Paula Bennett once felt so threatened by a young person with confidence as to use disparaging language to address her colleague (‘zip it sweetie’), indicates a prevailing sense among some people that younger people have to wait their turn to earn a place at the table.  I have bad news for any of you who think this way, because I think it’s fair to say that my generation doesn’t automatically subscribe to hierarchy for the sake of it.  I think we consider that the best approach would be respectfully combining fresh thinking and ideas with experience and historical knowledge rather than automatically discounting anything a young person has to say because, in your opinion, they’re not yet entitled to a voice.

I’m not sure who has my vote this election and this is not an endorsement of Jacinda.  It is simply an opportunity to take a moment to suggest that we should closely examine the impending critique of Jacinda’s abilities in relation to how her older or male colleagues would be treated.  And it is an observation that there is still a very long way to travel, even if Jacinda were elected as Prime Minister, to make New Zealand a fairer place for women.

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