It is unquestionable that Jacinda Ardern, the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand, who is not yet 40 herself, has successfully manoeuvred her country through the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a smattering of new cases a few weeks ago which were quickly contained and are being carefully managed, the country was previously one of the first to declare itself COVID-free while cases are still increasing in a number of other countries around the world.
But it is not only her decisiveness during the pandemic that has led me to religiously brag about her latest accomplishments to anyone who would listen but rather her purposeful, authentic and well-executed leadership over the past few years, which has overshadowed most of the current leaders around the world, in my opinion.
I admire her focus on topics which have escaped the notice of global politicians everywhere, such as her quest to end period poverty by providing free sanitary products in schools, a decision she made while juggling COVID-19 and economic pressures. While several countries have been blindsided by recent protests and COVID, Ardern has shown that it is possible to stay on course on making long-term positive changes in her country. In the UK, 1 in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products, while 1 in 7 have struggled to afford them, according to a representative survey of 1,000 girls and young women aged 14–21 by Plan International UK, and yet no such schemes have been implemented or discussed as a matter of national importance.
She has been an outspoken advocate for progressive women’s issues and her insistence that she is just one of many working women, makes me feel as though her achievements are within the reach of the rest of us. Her declaration that she was “by no means the first woman to multitask” nor was she the “first woman to work and have a baby” shows a humility that inspires me to stop expecting to choose between my career or having a family, despite the obvious obstacles.
For me, like many other millennial women trying to figure out that elusive work-life balance or the line between ambitious and well-rounded, Ardern’s confession that she is “able to do what [she is] doing because [of the] enormous support around [her]” shows that we never have to quite do it alone. Recognising the privilege she has and admitting that “it’s not easy” and has involved a whole lot of luck shows her as someone who is still fighting every day for her goals and her achievements feel a lot less like the overnight, has-it-all success many other successful women can sometimes seem to be.
In an interview, Ardern said that she did not “want to create a false impression that all women should be superhuman or super women”. It is an expectation often unceremoniously dumped on the shoulders of many women trying to succeed in a male-dominated industry, that they must outdo every other person to set an example for the next generation of women looking to them as role models. However, Ardern’s reluctance to be cast in the same group of ‘female role models’ lightens the invisible burden I carry — if she does not feel that she has to cater to the societal pressures by always struggling to do it all, then I too can chase my own happiness without always thinking of how I must trailblaze for all of womankind.
As many other politicians around the world remain staunchly oblivious of the fate of their citizens, Ardern’s pursuit of the common good and acknowledgement of her country and leadership’s shortcomings when necessary, such as her heartfelt apology following back-packer Grace Millane’s murder, is uplifting. Her raw speech highlighting the “overwhelming sense of hurt and shame” that the murder happened in New Zealand was an example of a leader who empathises and takes responsibility for the wrongs under her leadership. I remain in awe of her ability to connect with the world, at times when no one had expected or demanded an apology.
Her affable and down-to-earth approach has made her a likeable, relatable and fantastically effective leader, regardless of the difficult measures she has chosen to take. Despite New Zealand’s extremely strict lockdown measures, the leaked UMR poll showed that Ardern’s approval rating was 65%, and 78% of New Zealanders believe the country is heading in the right direction — the highest since 1991.
Jacinda Ardern has shown us all countless times how sometimes you don’t need to compromise your authenticity to succeed in politics and, let’s face it, despite not knowing a single soul in New Zealand, I’d also rather have been there a few weeks ago, with the cheerful crowds as Super Rugby Aotearoa started off to a thrilling start as the lockdown finally opened.