Let successful female leaders light the way for generations of women

Saturday July 04 2020

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, on April 20, 2020, speaks at a post-Cabinet media conference at Parliament House in Wellington, where she announced the coronavirus lockdown level four will continue for another week. PHOTO | MARK MITCHELL | AFP


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how countries with female leaders were lauded for their excellent responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Keen experts noted that female-led countries had a more pro-active, humane and empathetic approach to dealing with the virus.

The female leaders were commended for listening to experts, enforcing early intervention strategies such as level-four lockdowns, robust testing, relentless contact tracing, strict border closures and quarantines.

All these, coupled with friendly, calm communication strategies — and a PhD in quantum chemistry in the case of Germany’s Angela Merkel — have saved hundreds of lives in countries led by women.

In perhaps the latest endorsement of her efforts, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who appeared top on that list, has made history once again.

She is now the most popular prime minister in New Zealand in a century, with her popularity soaring by 20.8 per cent to 59.5 per cent, according to the latest poll released last Monday by Newshub-Reid Research.


In media, it is your readers who pay you the highest compliments, but in politics, it is the voters — the people — who pay a politician the highest compliments.


Ardern’s popularity was crystallised by her stellar efforts in her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. If all goes well, she is tipped to win the September 19 election.

Before I get into the ‘meat’ of my article, let’s first remember some facts about Ardern. At 39, she is one of the youngest world leaders; she became prime minister at the age of 37 in October 2017.

In 2018, she became the second female world leader to give birth in office after Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth to her daughter Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari in 1990.

Ardern, like Bhutto 28 years before her, showed the world that you can be a mother and a prime minister. Of course, Ardern is luckier to have lived in more accommodating times.

Unlike Bhutto, who had to fend off naysayers who claimed that pregnant women cannot lead thus calling for the setting up of a ‘caretaker government’, Ardern had the privilege to lead in a more progressive society that had no qualms about a pregnant prime minister.

The pandemic has exposed what our leaders are truly made of because their decisions now directly impact our daily lives.


It has also exposed the capabilities of women leaders in a society that has historically ignored them and traditionally underestimated and undermined the value of female leadership.

These tough times have reminded the world why we need more female leaders and more diverse decision-making teams.

Which brings me to my point: we have been repeatedly encouraged to make good use of this crisis, either at personal or industry level. And now, I would like to make a rather radical proposal.

Let this be a teachable moment for women across the board. Let us use the experiences of these outstanding female leaders to fuel and encourage our own ambitions for the future.

We must not let the efforts of Merkel and Ardern go to waste. Their success must beget our success.

We must take this time to recalibrate our ambitions upwards and bring down the mental barriers we have placed on ourselves that prevent us from going for gold.

I hope the exemplary leadership shown by Ardern, Merkel and Tsai Ing-wen will encourage women — the younger women especially — to realise that your voices and contributions matter.

Your expertise, experience and opinion are as good as that of the man’s next to you.


Let this show of success embolden women to raise their hands more often, speak up louder in meetings, and be visible in their places of work.

We should finally stop worrying about being liked and focus on getting the job done.

I hope women by now are convinced that if Ardern can be an immensely successful prime minister at 39, nothing is off the table for any woman ambitious enough.

I hope that every young woman who has been told that she is too young to lead has seen what Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has done.

At 34, she led a country into successfully handling Covid-19. If she can, so can you. Let this be a lesson to every woman that you can be excellent, in spite of what naysayers think and say.

Lastly, I hope that women will be more aggressive and assertive in a post-coronavirus world because the world needs us, and we have no choice but to rise up and take our rightful places.

The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are hers; [email protected]