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Blurring the line between work and home life: the School of Diplomacy on female political leaders

Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who led her country through the worst terrorist attack in its existence by passing gun-control laws and a model covid lockdown program that saved thousands of lives, is finding new life in the U.S. However, she has been met with mixed reactions from the Seton Hall community about the legacy she left behind as a female leader. 

In her closing speech to the New Zealand parliament, Ardern said she cannot determine what will define her leadership, but she hopes she has demonstrated “something else entirely.”

“You can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve,” Ardern said. “You can be a mother, or not, an ex-Mormon, or not, a nerd, a crier, a hugger – you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here – you can lead just like me.”

Ardern, who served as the 40th prime minister of New Zealand from 2017-2023, was the youngest female leader in the country’s history.

Alexandra Cherry, a junior double majoring in biology and philosophy, said Ardern should be commended for her leadership.

“In the United States, we have never had a female president,” Cherry, the president of the Seton Hall Women’s Network, a college women’s networking organization, said. “I still don't think that the journey to see more female leaders is over for our society, and we have a long way to go.”

Elizabeth Halpin, the Acting Director of the Buccino Leadership Institute and the Associate Dean of the School of Diplomacy, said it is important to follow leaders like Ardern who are leading well and are making progress on important issues because “female leadership is rare.”

“Women are more than 50% of the population, so if we do not have more than 50% of females at that level, then we still need to talk about it until we get there,” Halpin said. “I think it's important for us to follow women leaders who rise to that level just in general, and she is particularly interesting because she was young and balancing family life and political life, which I think is particularly hard to do. Typically, we see women in positions at that level not to have a family.”

Ardern is the third female prime minister of New Zealand out of nine who have served since the country gained independence in 1986.

Karen Boroff, a professor in the Stillman School of Business, said leaders like Ardern face the challenge of being a “first mover,” one of the first people to occupy a position someone with their background has not occupied before. 

“First movers are always going to have, besides the ordinary job challenges, a situation where people think they were brought in as a token,” Boroff, who is the former Seton Hall Provost and former Dean of the Stillman School of Business, said. “They’ll have to work hard to assure people that they have the ability to do the work.” 

Halpin said Ardern faced many challenges as a head of state, but she had to work harder to prove her capabilities as one of the youngest female prime ministers.

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“She is very attractive, and a lot of sentiment early on in her career was that people were following her because she was a pretty face, not because of her capabilities and leadership style,” Halpin said. “To be taken seriously as pretty, as a woman, as a young person, she had to work three times as hard as one of her predecessors may have.”

Pranali Jain, a diplomacy and economics double major, said that there is a gendered aspect to Arderns coverage as a female leader.

“I think we need to normalize the fact that women can be leaders,” Jain said. “It is time that we stop treating female leadership as an anomaly.”

Ardern’s leadership was tested in March 2019 when New Zealand faced the worst terrorist attack and mass shooting in the country’s history. A white supremecist went to two mosques in Christchurch, a town in New Zealand, and shot 51 Muslims dead. Ardern met with the New Zealand Muslim community after the attack, never mentioned the shooter's name, and introduced gun laws.

Halpin said Ardern’s communication after the attack was important and effective. “She met and spoke with her people, and she hugged them,” she said. “The empathy there was felt strongly in response to her being there. On that occasion she reacted like a mother.”

Within two weeks of the Christchurch attack, a bill was signed into law that banned semi-automatic weapons from the general New Zealand population. 

Eric Bunce, a senior double majoring in diplomacy and economics, said the passage of gun control laws within two weeks, was “her most shining example of leadership.”

“How many mass shootings have we had in the United States,” Bunce said. “It took one mass shooting in New Zealand for the government to respond.”

Shweta Parathasarathy, a senior majoring in diplomacy and the President of Seton Hall’s GirlUp, a girls-focused leadership development organization, said when she saw that New Zealand passed gun-control laws quickly, it was “a moment of sadness, as an American.”

“I wish our government had the same reaction to mass shootings,” Parthsarathy said. “That's the decisiveness and immediate response to a crisis that some leaders lack.”

Ardern’s leadership was tested again when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020. Compared to other countries, New Zealand went into a national lockdown and imposed a travel ban for all non-residents. Her actions were estimated to save thousands of lives, but she remained controversial in New Zealand for keeping the restrictions after the deadliest strains had passed.

Boroff said leading through crises, whether it was COVID-19 or the Christchurch attack, can be difficult.

“In a crisis, there’s no playbook, no binder to take off the shelf to tell you what to do, and there's a lack of good information,” Boroff said. “You are making decisions with limited information, and your poor decisions could have deadly consequences.”

Bunce, who has family in New Zealand, said Ardern made the right decision to put the country on lockdown. “Towards the end when the variants and strains became far less severe, and there were fewer vaccines, she could have resumed economic and cultural life, but if we measure a policy in terms of saving lives, which she did, then it was an undeniable success.”

Ardern focused on domestic programs to support children and families, like adding school lunch programs and increasing primary school teachers salaries. She is the second world leader to give birth while in office, and the media widely covered that she was the first world leader to bring her baby to the U.N General Assembly.

Bunce said Ardern was trying to make a statement by bringing her baby to the General Assembly.

“You wouldn’t bring your child to the General Assembly if you did not want coverage,” Bunce said. “I think she wanted the world to see that women can be mothers and leaders at the same time.”

Nabella Alam, a professor in the School of Diplomacy who is affiliated with the Seton Hall Women and Gender Studies Program, said the coverage of Ardern as a mother could have been better.

“People may take away that it is possible to have a young baby, be prime minister, but we do not see the invisible support that makes it possible,” Alam said. “We need to think about what needs to be done for women to succeed in the workplace, and I don't think that is talked about enough. Her stepping down opens up the kind of questions of what kind of support systems we need to put in place for women, like Jacinda Ardern, who are in office and have children.”

In January 2023, Ardern announced her resignation, and she said she “did not have enough left in the tank.”

“I was disappointed that she was stepping down because I know that it would be seen by some as a reason to position themselves against women’s leadership, but I also think the longer I thought about it, I thought it was a brave choice,” Halpin said. “It’s important for people to be able to make choices like that and for it to be normalized. I was feeling like I was part of the problem for being mad about it.”

Parthasarathy said she admired Ardern’s decision to step down.

“I think that took a lot of self-awareness and selflessness, especially because she is in a position of power, and power is not easy to give up.,” Parasarathy said. “I admire that she recognized that she was no longer able to wield that power in a way that was good for her country.”

Halpin said she had never followed New Zealand politics before hearing about Ardern, and her visibility will have a significant impact on the next generation.

“I think she will have a great impact on the way Generation Z sees leadership and the possibilities for themselves,” Halpin said.

Jain said being a diplomacy major who learns about complex problems like gender based violence and climate change can be discouraging, but Ardern gave her hope.

“In my opinion, I think her impact as a leader was empowering, inspiring, and it gave me a sense of optimism,” Jain said. “I think when leaders like Jacinda Ardern fulfill their agenda as best as they can, it gives me a sense that I can hold out hope for the future.”

Ardern will move to the U.S. this year to do two fellowships at Harvard, where she will study ways to improve standards and accountability to combat extremist content posted online.

“I think it is really cool that she is working on the same issues like on combating extremism online, so she is still taking action that will impact events like Christchurch,” Halpin said. “It is really great for the U.S. that she is here, and maybe we can learn more things from her. I also think it's great to have people of her caliber in academic life.”

Jasmine De Leon can be reached


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