Women leaders and the power of knowing when to walk away

18 Feb 2023 01:12pm
Ardern announcing she will resign in February on Jan 18 (left) and Sturgeon during a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh where she announced she will stand down as First Minister, in Edinburgh on Feb 15. (Photo by AFP)
Ardern announcing she will resign in February on Jan 18 (left) and Sturgeon during a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh where she announced she will stand down as First Minister, in Edinburgh on Feb 15. (Photo by AFP)

In the past two months, the world was surprised by the sudden resignations of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. In her announcement, Jacinda said “she had no more in the tank” to continue helming the role and that “it was time” to leave. The Scottish National Party leader echoed a similar sentiment. According to her, she knew "in my head and in my heart" this was the right time to step down.

These women leaders were creating strides in their own right. Ardern was the youngest-ever leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party and became the country’s youngest PM, and its youngest female PM ever. Sturgeon, on the other hand, is the first woman and longest-serving person to hold the office of the First Minister of Scotland

Why was it such a shock?

The resignations may come as a shock, partly due to the stark contrast with recent examples of male political leaders who cling to power despite calls for them to step down. We saw former US president, Donald Trump refusing to accept the outcome of a democratic election and accused of inciting insurrection in a desperate bid to hold on to his position.

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson was faced with an unprecedented wave of resignations from Ministers and Members of Parliament. He finally gave in and resigned after 50 MPs quit under his administration.

This is by no means claiming that Ardern’s and Sturgeon’s administration was without issues. It is evident that both leaders faced political challenges.

Sturgeon was embroiled in a controversial crisis around transgender rights amidst the backdrop of teacher’s strikes at and concerns over clogged up hospitals with long waiting hours. Ardern was confronted with declining popularity and potentially losing the next general election.

Though we celebrate leaders like Ardern and Sturgeon for knowing when it’s enough, how does this fare for the next person in line? It is likely that these women will be replaced by men and some may argue that this will create a “diversity vacuum” in positions of power.

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This may be true, but we should be cautious of the kind of pressure we place on women leaders to be sole advocates of gender equity when it should be a collective effort.

Women in the public eye tend to be judged more harshly than men. It is harder for women to survive in public office having to excel at their job while also challenging the societal prejudice that comes with it.

Women in leadership roles

The global gender gap remains wide.

According to the 2022 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey, it will take another 132 years to reach gender equality worldwide. More women are leaving the workforce compared to men and at higher rates catalysed by the pandemic.

It is critical at the leadership level. To put things in perspective, the report highlights that for every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.

Women are demanding more from their companies and are not afraid to leave their roles to get them. Why do women leave?

Firstly, women face more workplace barriers in comparison to their male counterparts, despite having a similar drive for success. It was shown in the report that women leaders are twice as likely as malemen leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior.

Women leaders are also more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.

This leads to the second reason which is that more women feel overworked yet underrecognised, resulting in a shift in what women want to see in their workplace culture. Women are more likely to seek out companies that care for their well-being and have more inclusive work policies in place.

Politics is not exempted from this phenomenon and have similar undertones.

The 2022 Global Gender Gap Report by World Economic Forum reported that it will take 155 years to close the Political Empowerment gender gap.

Female politicians face similar situations of having their credibility questioned because of their gender, something their male counterparts do not face. Attitudes towards women candidates are still characterised by deeply entrenched stereotypes, and political opponents are not afraid to use those stereotypes to question women’s capabilities.

Are women better at knowing when it’s time to quit and move on?

This is an opportunity to reframe the conversation around stepping back and of duty.

These traits are not uniquely present in women, yet they are typically associated with women and sometimes deemed as ‘weak’ qualities when in reality it is the opposite. It signals to the public that leadership is not a zero-sum game and that great leadership is knowing when to be humble and take a backseat.

Both Arden and Sturgeon still commanded the leadership of their party and the respect of their citizens, and neither of them was under any critical pressure to step down.

The notion that holding public office is a noble duty, and that one should serve only as long as it is in the public interest to do so, is lost on many of our political leaders. Hence, having these trailblasers step down was a needed wake-up call for those that cling to power for power’s sake.

These women have showcased a more balanced leadership style that many of their counterparts could learn from. They show the world that sometimes leaning back can be just as powerful as leaning in.

Arinah Najwa Ahmad Said is a Director at BowerGroupAsia a public policy advisory firm. She has under a decade of experience across corporate, government and non-profit sectors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.

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