Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

Are Norms Shifting for Female Leaders? Scotland Suggests They May Be.

In an emotional speech that referenced the heavy personal toll of a life in politics, Nicola Sturgeon announced today that she would resign as first minister of Scotland after eight years on the job.

“Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it — the country deserves nothing less,” she said in her resignation announcement. “But in truth, that can only be done by anyone for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.”

Her remarks immediately drew comparisons to those offered a few weeks ago when New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, resigned, saying she didn’t have the “full tank plus a bit in reserve” that leaders needed. “Politicians are human,” Ardern said. “We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me it’s time.”

Female leaders are still a relative rarity, but the comparisons between the two resignations were about more than just shared gender. (Notably, when Ardern stepped down, almost no one mentioned Liz Truss, who had resigned as Britain’s prime minister after a disastrously short tenure just a few months earlier.)

Both Sturgeon and Ardern stepped down following political setbacks, but not scandals, putting them in sharp contrast to leaders like Boris Johnson, who held on to power through multiple scandals before being forced out by a revolt within his own party. And while in office, both women projected caring and protective political personas, especially during the Covid pandemic, though Sturgeon was often spikier in her dealings with the government in Westminster.

Their resignations hint at a shift in the traits perceived as powerful and desirable in leaders that could have far-reaching consequences for governance, as well as for women’s ability to win political power.

‘A human being as well as a politician’

Resigning before being forced out can be a way to leave office with an intact political reputation, but it also carries the risk of looking like, well, a quitter.

Both leaders had recently suffered significant political setbacks.

Ardern’s party was plunging in the polls amid voter dissatisfaction with the economy and inflation. Sturgeon’s party suffered a major blow to its campaign for Scottish independence when a court held in November that a new independence referendum would have to be approved by the British Parliament. And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to block a Scottish bill that would have made it easier for people to officially change their gender threatened a constitutional crisis over Scotland’s ability to pass its own laws.

But Sturgeon’s resignation speech suggests that she looked to Ardern as a model, if not for the decision itself, then at least for how best to present it to the public.

Both women spoke of their desire to spend more time with their families — Sturgeon with her teenage niece and nephew; Ardern with her young children. That rationale has long been seen as a cliché for a leader forced to resign under less-than-ideal circumstances. But it hits differently with female leaders.

Sturgeon and Ardern moved beyond platitudes to describe the specific roles they had missed out on and hoped to fulfill. And such roles are traditionally perceived as valuable and important for women in ways they are not for men. (Though perhaps not valued by everyone — Sturgeon joked that her niece and nephew are 17 years old, “exactly the age to be horrified at the thought of your auntie suddenly having more time for you.”)

That suggests one way that women can sidestep the Catch-22 that many women face when they try to exercise power or authority: The commonly held image of a “strong leader” is someone confident and swaggering, but research shows that if women act that way, they are seen as unlikable and even as illegitimate leaders. Often, the response to such findings focuses on how to lessen the penalty women face for going against gender stereotypes. But another approach is to work on the problem from the opposite direction, shifting perceptions of strong leadership to include traits more stereotypically associated with women.

Ardern’s speech was part of a long track record of doing just that by tying her leadership to a maternal, friendly, cooperative political persona, as I wrote in January. For instance, when Ardern addressed the nation after the country began its strict Covid lockdown in March 2020, she conducted an informal Facebook Live session on her phone while wearing a cozy sweatshirt, and made sure to let people know that she had just finished putting her toddler to bed.

Sturgeon did not have such an overtly maternal political persona, and rarely presented herself as cozy or casual. But she often framed her political authority in caring terms. During the pandemic, for instance, she excoriated Boris Johnson for being “glib” about the virus’s death toll, saying “whether that’s the human life of a child, a young adult or an older adult, human life is human life.”

Her decision to echo Ardern’s speech when resigning suggests that she may have seen power in that approach. And while two speeches are not enough to declare a trend, if this political style is becoming more effective and admired, then that could have implications for substance as well as style.

I often think about an interview I did back in 2020 with Alice Evans, a lecturer at King’s College London, who studies how women gain power in public life. She made the point that the typically masculine leadership style, which privileges risk-taking and combativeness, can be ill-suited to situations like a pandemic. Limited visions of what a leader looks like can lead to limited leadership options, to the detriment of policy.

There is a narrow line, however, between treating feminine traits as valuable to leadership and demanding that female politicians fit stereotypical gender norms. Ardern, though unmarried, is a white, educated mother in a long-term relationship with the father of her child — roles generally seen as respectable and valuable for a woman.

By contrast, leaders who stray further from perceptions of feminine respectability may face a backlash. Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, has often been compared to Ardern. She married her long-term partner, the father of her young daughter, while in office. But Marin was embroiled in a political crisis after video emerged of her dancing in a nightclub, and a photo of two bare-breasted women embracing at a party she hosted. In a tearful speech, Marin defended her right to a private life, but she was pressured into submitting to a drug test, which she passed.

Sturgeon does not have children, and drawing on her relationship with her niece and nephew may not be as powerful a role to leverage as Ardern’s references to motherhood. But the fact that she reached for that style at all suggests that political archetypes are evolving.

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