What Jacinda Ardern teaches us about leadership

workingmums.co.uk speaks to Gill Whitty-Collins, author of Why men win at work, about Jacinda Ardern, Covid and the need for the gender equality debate to reach out to men more.

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Jacinda Ardern has modelled not only how to be a good leader, but how to know when to step down, according to author Gill Whitty-Collins.

Whitty-Collins, author of Why men win at work, says the immediate response to Ardern’s resignation as prime minister of New Zealand was predictable and disappointing, she says. Instead of asking yet again whether women can ‘have it all’, she says it was an opportunity to acknowledge what an effective leader Ardern had been. “She wasn’t trying to be a man woman,” she states. “The ability to lead with empathy is not an exclusively female thing, but she was able to show that leadership can look and be and sound different. That’s important for the future. Next time people see a woman who reminds them of Jacinda Ardern they will see her as a possible leader.”

Whitty-Collins adds that it was refreshing to see a leader resign and admit to ‘not having enough in the tank’ and that the having it all argument is a bogus one because no-one can have it all. Moreover, she says, Ardern had to face the additional abuse and scrutiny that comes with being a female political leader. Whitty-Collins states: “Often male leaders cling on for far too long when they should resign and men never admit to not having enough in the tank.” She says doing so shows integrity and self awareness. “It’s inspiring that she knew it was time to go – that was incredible role modelling for everyone,” she states.  

Women who win

In her book, Whitty-Collins has a chapter on the small percentage of ‘women who win’ – the seven per cent of top leadership positiions held by women. What these women tend to have in common, she says, apart from political nous, high levels of self-awareness and a supportive partner, is that they don’t do unpaid work at home. “The concept of having it all needs to be dismantled as soon as possible,” says Whitty-Collins. “No-one can do it all. Men are not doing it all. No woman can be CEO at home and at work. It’s a damaging idea and younger women need to know that it doesn’t add up.  You cannot have a career like that and do everything else and take on all the emotional labour.  Something will have to give.”

She thinks women could learn a lot from the seven per cent about not expecting too much of themselves. She herself had her son while she was at university and feels it was easier than having a child mid-career and having to deal with sleepless nights an so forth while handling a demanding job.

As a coach, she thinks it is better if younger women don’t put themselves under intense pressure to reach a certain career goal and instead focus on on their ‘superpowers’, what their unique strengths are and find a job where they can use those skills most of the time. “If you do that and stick to that you will succeed,” she says. “The rest will come. The biggest barrier is not using your capabilities. Let the career bring itself to you because it needs the superpowers you possess.”

FeMANists

Whitty-Collin’s book is directed at both men and women. She feels passionately that it is no good women speaking to themselves, particularly given men still hold over 90% of leadership positions globally. “It’s really important to me that men read my book, engage with it and commit to change what they are doing,” she says. “They are making or influencing all the decisions so if they are not in on gender equality it is never going to happen.”

She says many books on gender equality are quite angry and she feels men are likely not to get past the first few pages because they think it is just man-bashing. She adds that she had to make a conscious effort to ensure she wrote the book as much for men as for women. While women know a lot of what she has written about – it was nothing new, but they appreciated that Whitty-Collins understood what they are going through – she says the feedback from her male readers is different – they often had no idea about what women are facing and that they might be contributing to that, she says. The book is very much written to help them know how they can do things differently and support women – to be what she calls ‘feMANists’.

This is not about women versus men. Any team that is not diverse is missing out, including a female-dominated one.

Whitty-Collins has some sympathy with men who try to share the domestic load equally. She says they are often thwarted by the assumptions and expectations of their male peers and employers, even those with gender neutral policies on paper. She advocates male leaders role modelling flexible working and taking parental leave until it becomes ‘cool’ to do so. And she hopes it will become easier for men to build supportive networks, as women have, so they can talk about family issues and not feel as isolated as many who don’t follow gender stereotypes often feel now.

Covid and beyond

Whitty-Collins’ book was first published in 2020 and she feels things have got worse for women as a result of Covid, not just in terms of them having had to take on more of the home load during the pandemic, but also because of the problems associated with the flexible working backlash we are currently seeing from many employers. “Hybrid working should be brilliant for everyone,” she says, “if everyone did it, but it is much more likely that women will do it and men will be in the office, something that is reinforced by employer expectations.  The problem is that many women think that if they do their work well that will be enough and that is not the reality of what happens. Those who work remotely are less visible and will be less likely to get promoted. It would be great if bosses were more savvy about this, but it is likely that they will favour those closer to them.”

So how do women get around this if working in a hybrid way or remotely is what makes working with a family possible?  Whitty-Collins says we used to say women need to learn to ‘lean in’ more. Then we said men needed to fix it. She believes everyone has a role to play to make it easier for women to succeed at work. That means women being politically savvy and seeking greater visibility at work, for instance, and men being more aware of the barriers to equality at work and that they need to take action to help more women get to the top and increase the number of role models for other women to follow.

The book ends with a series of to-do lists for everyone from parents and teachers to managers.  For women, for instance, Whitty-Collins’ tips include reframing imposter syndrome as a positive while for men it is more about positive role modelling, openly supporting and sponsoring women, doing 50% of the work at home and not going along with the idea that we’re making good progress on gender equality. More hard work is needed. She writes: “This is not about women versus men. Any team that is not diverse is missing out, including a female-dominated one. This is about the importance of diversity of thought, skills and approach in the building of superior teams, businesses and societies.”



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