While many countries are yet to have their first woman leader, Jacinda Ardern — who is pregnant and soon to take maternity leave — is the third woman with the top job in New Zealand.
But at a talk in London on 18 April, Ardern warned that having women leaders does not necessarily mean equality has been achieved for ordinary women.
“We have to be careful that we’re not complacent”
“I’m really conscious that even if we look like we’re winning in the high places, we’ve got to think about all the other workplaces too,” she said. “We have to be careful that we’re not complacent. Even having a female prime minister does not mean that you’ve achieved equality.”
Ardern was speaking alongside Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau at a gender equality Q&A with secondary school students hosted by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
When one student asked Ardern her opinion about discrimination against women in politics, the prime minister said that what really matters for gender equality is improving the everyday experiences of all women and helping them to tackle the challenges they face.
“I have had as many really difficult moments outside of politics as I have in it”
“Probably I have had as many really difficult moments outside of politics as I have in it,” she said.
In fact, Ardern said she has found that discrimination in her political career has often been easier to deal with than it was in other industries. “Yes, in politics I experience bits of discrimination here and there, but I have a lot of people who come in and defend me when it happens,” she said.
In previous workplaces, meanwhile, “there was nobody else but me to take it, and that was probably harder in some ways.” The gender discrimination she experienced in former jobs taught Ardern that many ordinary women don’t have the support she does today, she said.
New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote 125 years ago and today almost 40% of the MPs in its parliament are female — a record. Besides Ardern, it also has a female chief justice heading its judiciary and a female governor general representing its monarch.
“Does it mean the work is done? No, because what matters is the experience that women have in the workplace in everyday life,” Ardern said.
Another student asked the leaders what advice they would offer young women in politics. Ardern said the biggest barrier holding many women back was a lack of self-belief. She admitted that she herself had suffered from confidence issues and had never pictured herself as a future leader.
Trudeau agreed, and described his fight to try and get more women involved in politics. Under his administration, Canada appointed its first gender-balanced cabinet.
“I had to spend years trying to convince extraordinary women across Canada to step forward”
“In order to do that, I had to spend years trying to convince extraordinary women across Canada to step forward into politics,” he said.
“When you ask a guy if he wants to go into politics his first question is usually, ‘Why did it take you so long to ask me?’” Trudeau continued. “If you ask a woman, there’s usually a pause, and then, ‘Do you think I’m good enough?’”
“You meet these women with extraordinary CVs and backgrounds, but there’s a system that keeps them doubting they can succeed,” Trudeau said.
But the point Trudeau most emphasised throughout the talk was his belief in the critical importance of involving men and young boys in the movement for gender equality.
He said men have greater opportunities, more power and stronger voices — and therefore they must be encouraged to use that extra weight to be part of the solution.
The Trudeaus are not only teaching their daughter to believe in herself, he said, but are also teaching their sons to be feminists, advocates for gender equality and supporters of their sister.
The event was part of the Mayor of London’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, which celebrates 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK. Khan opened the discussion by referring to his guests as “two of the leading feminists in the world”.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Ulysse Bellier)