March 2019

By Sally A. Painter and Willa Lerner

On March 8, the world marked International Women’s Day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women—and to call for gender parity. Since the day’s founding in 1911, while societies around the world have made progress in advancing the rights of women, recognizing their contributions, and expanding opportunities to participate in public leadership, much more is needed. In the U.S., we’ve seen the first major political party nomination of a woman candidate for president, widespread recognition of the #MeToo movement, and a record-breaking number of women legislators elected to the 116th U.S. Congress.

The theme of the 2019 International Women’s Day Campaign is #BalanceforBetter, calling for greater gender balance in boardrooms, governments, media coverage, the workforce, support services, and elsewhere. A 2014 survey of almost 22,000 firms in 91 countries conducted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that nearly 60 percent of the firms surveyed had no women board members and just over 50 percent had no women c-suite executives. The study demonstrated that profitable firms that increased women representation in leadership from zero to 30% saw an average 15% increase in their net revenue margin.

The 2017 election of Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister of New Zealand—a striking figure in her country’s politics as well as on the international stage—has been an inspiring step in this direction. Not only is she the third female prime minister to represent New Zealand, Ardern is also just the second sitting world leader to give birth while in office and the first ever to take maternity leave. A long-standing member of New Zealand’s Labour Party with nearly a decade of parliamentary experience, Ardern has been a consistent champion of progressive policies, collaborative approaches, and “politics with heart.” As a new world leader, Ardern is helping build a future we can all celebrate—one that values kindness, inclusion, and equal opportunities.

“I refuse to believe you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” – Prime Minister Ardern

Prime Minister Ardern entered office with ambitious policies aimed at reducing inequality and child poverty, addressing New Zealand’s domestic housing crisis, improving mental health supports, and implementing tax reform of the country’s welfare system. Her government has seen success in its first year, including the passage of affordable housing measures and tax credits to support new parents and families.

Yet, Ardern’s ambition is not limited to domestic issues. She has taken strong stances on climate change and immigration, and importantly, has done so in ways that cut through the divisive rhetoric that seems to pervade so many discussions of these and other current topics. Though the housing shortage has made immigration a tense issue in New Zealand, under Ardern, the Labour Party has pledged to double the number of accepted refugees. Ardern has also faced pushback for her decision to stop granting new government permits for offshore oil and gas exploration. She’s stood fast to her position, as she did on a panel with former U.S. vice president Al Gore at the World Economic Forum in January 2019 where she stated that “You don’t have to cede power by acting on climate change... Actually, this is about being on the right side of history.”

“I don’t want to appear to be superwoman because we should not expect women to be superwomen.”– Prime Minister Ardern

Ardern’s biggest success thus far may be in normalizing the role of working mothers. She is realistic about the competing challenges of motherhood and the premiership, and is quick to point out the privileges that allow her to undertake these two important jobs. She regularly champions policies that make it increasingly possible for other women to do the same, launching a $5.5 billion “family package” to boost the incomes of New Zealand families and providing an additional tax credit for families with newborns.

Refreshingly, it’s clear that the values Ardern holds as a mother inform the decisions she makes as prime minster—and vice versa. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, Ardern succinctly captured the message at the core of all her efforts: “In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism—the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any.”

Today more than ever, we need examples of smart leadership that can be—at the same time—both strong and empathetic. Prime Minister Ardern should not be overlooked merely as the leader of a small island nation in the South Pacific. She should be seen as a role model for each of us as individuals, for our elected leaders, and for women around the world.