New Zealand’s Debates Show What Changes When Two Women Lead

New Zealand’s most recent elections, which ended up with an electoral landslide for the incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, says something about women in leadership roles. With the leaders of New Zealand’s two biggest parties being women, the dynamics in New Zealand is a lesson for the U.S. and other countries that still have to elect a woman in the top job.

The most recent elections also show how women choose to portray different styles of leadership when vying for the top job in their respective countries – and how embracing some gender stereotypes, such as empathy for women, can have positive results.

From 1999 to 2020

For New Zealanders, having two women fighting for the Prime Minister’s job is not something new; it’s actually something that is more than two-decades-old. The first all-women run has its root in 1997 when The National Party Government came to be led by Jenny Shipley, and she faced off Helen Clark in the 1999 elections. Clark won the race, and became one of New Zealand’s longest-serving Prime Ministers in history.

This time around, the outgoing Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern of the Labour Party, was facing Judith Collins, the head of New Zealand’s National Party since 2020. Over the past few months, Ardern was praised abroad for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic but less popular at home for her policies on housing, homelessness, and economic inequality.

For Suze Wilson, a lecturer on leadership at Massey University, the fact that New Zealanders have seen women fighting for the top job before made it easier for Ardern and Collins to focus on content: 

“I think it’s definitely an issue in the sense that we have ‘been there and done that before’ – and both Shipley and Clark, despite ideological differences, are both widely respected as very competent leaders,” Wilson said in an email, “So in that regard, neither Ardern nor Collins’ are faced with having to ‘break new ground’ to prove women are up to the task of being Prime Minister.”

Still, there were other stereotypes Ardern had to deal with when she won the leadership race in 2017, according to Jennifer Curtin, a professor in public policy at the University of Auckland: “yes, to some extent I think New Zealand is less wowed by the presence of women leaders now,” Curtin said in an email, “although when Ardern was given the leadership of the Labour Party in advance of 2017, there was a bit of a media frenzy. I think that was because she was young (only 37) and because she became leader just seven weeks out from the election, which was unheard of.”

Debates Dynamics

While having two women debating in New Zealand was a stark contrast with the U.S. electoral debate opposing President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, some dynamics seen in the U.S. were also present in New Zealand’s electoral debate, to some extent: 

“New Zealand’s debates offered more scope for substantive discussion of policy issues and a far less fractious and chaotic environment for debating,” Wilson said, “However, it must be said that Collins did frequently resort to a very combative style (by New Zealand standards!) which seemed to be either a strategic effort to rattle and undermine Ardern or to reflect an inability on Collin’s part to constrain her own obvious contempt for Ardern.“

However, New Zealand’s dynamics are nothing that can be compared to the new standards in the U.S., Wilson adds:

“Right from the first debate Collins, while not resorting to the childish name-calling and direct personal attacks that Trump uses, did seek to portray Ardern as ‘well-intentioned’ but largely ineffective and prone to what Collins derides as ‘nonsense’ by which she seems to mean naïve and not worldly-wise.”

Even though the format of the debates were similar to the U.S., for Curtin, that’s pretty much where the comparison ends: “what was different in [New Zealand] compared to the US was that both our major party leaders promised in advance that they would not get personal. We still saw a lot of interjecting, and talking over top of each other, but no name-calling.”

Gender Dynamics

Gender dynamics also played a role. While Collins decided to approach the debate in a more traditional leadership style, Ardern, instead, embraced leadership traits that are in general more associated with female leaders, but that is are also often applauded when it comes to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“For Ardern she overtly promotes kindness as a key value meaning she is relationship-oriented, which is a common feature of women’s leadership,” Wilson says, “She also has sought to appeal to voters across the whole of society, to be inclusive.”

While Ardern decided to go with her own style, she had to adapt when faced with a different strategy: “It was not until the third debate that Ardern really started to ‘fight fire with fire’, but even then the critique was focussed on policy, strategy or judgement, not personal attack,” Wilson says.

Still, Curtin argues other stereotypes used against Ardern in the debates: “The reporting didn’t invoke too many of the gendered stereotypes that we sometimes see in media reporting elsewhere,” Curtin said, “although it was interesting that the opposition leader, Judith Collins, who is almost 20 years Ardern’s senior refused to call Ardern by her first name or by her title, Prime Minister, but called her “Miss Ardern” or “dear” so accentuating her comparative youthfulness (sometimes code for inexperience).”

The fact that Ardern was facing another woman leader changed the overall tone of the debate, however. In the U.S. elections in 2016, questions around women in leadership were more present than when a female leader meets a male one, Wilson argues. “With it being two women leaders, I think the issue of who was more assertive, confident  or resilient under pressure was less of an issue than it would have been if it had been a woman leader contesting a male leader,” she says, “Instead it was very clear that both women are confident, assertive and resilient under pressure.”

And Gender-related Issues?

In New Zealand, having two women leaders in a debate did not translate into having more discussions about gender-related topics. Jennifer Curtin’s team at the University of Auckland monitored this specific topic, and did not see any greater interest in discussing gender-related issues: “Yet despite this, and despite having two women leaders, both of whom identify as feminist, gender equality issues were not raised during the debates,” Curtin says.

“This might also be about the role of the moderators as well. Two of the three TV Studio debates were moderated by men, and the only Town Hall debate was co-moderated by a man and woman. It was almost as if the women leaders didn’t want to address gender equality; and that having women in these top jobs was somehow sufficient,” Curtin concludes.

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