Jan 19, 2023 - World

Ardern's exit after "unprecedented" threats shows toll of burnout for women leaders

Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked many when she announced her impending resignation, citing burnout, but some of the burdens she has faced are familiar to women leaders around the world.

The big picture: The vitriol aimed at Ardern during her tenure reflects wider trends that directly impact many women in politics.

  • Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark issued a statement Thursday praising the "extraordinary job" Ardern has done, but noted that, "Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country."
  • When she was elected in 2017, Ardern became the world's youngest woman head of government and was only the second to give birth while in office, after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto in 1990.

"When women stand up to claim their space, in politics and public life, there is an ensuing backlash. This is a global phenomenon. It happens pretty much everywhere," Sandra Pepera, director of the National Democratic Institute's Gender, Women and Democracy team, told Axios.

  • Ardern had handled a series of crises while being trolled and abused online, she said. "It is a heavy toll on political women, and they are having to develop wells of resilience, far above the norm," Pepera said.

While Ardern's leadership won praise from many quarters, her government's crackdown on guns following the country's worst mass shooting and its strict handling of the COVID-19 pandemic fueled opposition that veered into extremism.

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at the Te Pūnaha Matatini Disinformation Project, which monitors misinformation and online extremism, told The Guardian last year that the group had observed "the most significant increase in violent, vulgar, vicious, venomous commentary against the PM since the start of our study in mid-August 2021."
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin (left) is greeted by New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a welcome ceremony in Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 30. Photo: Diego OPATOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

“The vocabulary … has migrated from implicit and elusive references to her murder, assassination and rape now to explicit calls for it," he added.

  • New Zealand's Newshub, citing data from the Official Information Act, reported last June that threats recorded against Ardern nearly tripled in the past few years.
  • Ardern told local news last April that she'd seen online abuse "get worse over the past 12 months than it has been before, so I can also expect it can get better.”

Why it matters: These threats against women in public office can have a tangible effect on whether women seek out and wish to remain in government — let alone whether they'll be successful.

  • The constant stream of attacks can often dissuade women from entering into politics, particularly for younger women as they witness more established women in politics be forced to contend with the abuse, Pepera told Axios.
  • A 2021 study found that among political candidates in the U.K. facing harassment and intimidation, women were more likely than men to modify their campaign strategies out of safety concerns.
  • These adjustments — such as cutting down on canvassing or social media — tended to negatively affect their chances of success.
  • While some countries, such as Bolivia, have made efforts to criminalize violence against women in politics, implementation of these efforts has proven more difficult, according to Pepera.

Zoom in: Women of color and women from other minority backgrounds are often disproportionally targeted in the abuse lobbed at women in politics.

  • A study published in October by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that women of color in the U.S. running for office were four times more likely to be targeted with violent abuse than white candidates, and were more likely to be on the receiving end of sexist abuse than white women running for office.
  • According to Amnesty International, among the Indian women politicians targeted on Twitter, Muslim women and women from marginalized castes received significantly more abuse than women from other religions and castes.
  • According to Amnesty International U.K. Director Kate Allen, Black women MPs are subject to "horrifying levels of online abuse" and are "84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets."

The behavior of women in politics is frequently held to a different standard than that of their male colleagues.

  • A political firestorm ensued last year when Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was recorded dancing at a private event, despite the fact that plenty of male politicians, from former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to former President Donald Trump had been seen doing the same.
  • The outrage sparked a movement of women — including Hillary Clinton —posting videos and photos of themselves dancing online in solidarity with Marin.

Context: A 2019 study examining "uncivil" tweets addressed to Canadian politicians and U.S. senators found that in both cases women were disproportionally targeted.

  • In October, a research initiative created by Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League found that U.S. women officials at the local level were targeted at a higher frequency than others, comprising 42.4% of all incidents.
  • In the U.K., members of Parliament have reported a spike in threatening messages since Brexit, with women and other minorities bearing the brunt of the abuse, CNN reported.

According to Amnesty International, women politicians in India face a "shocking scale of abuse" on Twitter, owing not just to their political stances but also stemming from their gender, religious and caste identities as well as their marital status.

  • A 2021 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the African Parliamentary Union found that "sexism, harassment and violence against women are ubiquitous in parliaments across Africa." Often, the abuse came from male parliamentary colleagues, both within their own parties and from rival parties.

Go deeper: Women politicians are under siege

Go deeper