Most women leaders have been exemplary since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. Yet too many journalists, mostly male, seem to think they are too much or too little. In comparison to whom? America’s Trump, who spends his time seeking to spotlight his authoritarian tendencies? Macron, who has infected France’s foreign policy with yesteryear imperialistic malwear? Russia's Putin, who enjoys the limelight of repression? Jinping in China, who wears human rights on his sleeve as he persecutes Uighurs and other Muslims?
Too many men and some women journalists write with “white heteronormative propriety”, expecting women leaders to be pliable and demure and keep their voices measured. Otherwise they’re regarded as “lodestars of excess” (Rachel Vorona Cote in Too Much. How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, 2020), as if their courage, passion, compassion, and verve were too much in the face of entrenched patriarchy in world leadership.
Take Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister. She has been an exemplary leader since before the COVID19 pandemic, as have been the women who lead Germany, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan. She is a good leader not because, as journalist Emanuel Stoakes in a Washington Post October 13, 2020 article (“Ardern’s record is more complicated than her reputation”) argues, others have shown their goodwill (instead of the normal misogynistic hostility?), or because she is “upbeat and composed” (instead of expectedly bullish and in overwrought?), or because she has empathy and compassion in times of crisis (instead of tone deafness and indifference). They (the ones not in parentheses) are all essential qualities of good leadership, although rare among men leaders, and should be the expected norm.
Ardern's leadership qualities, as well as those of other women in leadership positions, cannot be "graded" in comparison to men in leadership positions, and certainly not Trump and other strongman-like leaders who are poor communicators, don’t know how to command in a crisis situation, and have lost control and trust. She is a good leader because she has the qualities required to lead a nation in good and bad times. And because she, like the other women leaders mentioned, makes a nonnormative difference. Excess is no longer defined according to the terms that most benefit white cisgender men and caters to their proclivities and comforts (Vorona Cote). It is defined in association with excessive displays of power and virility and a dearth of emotional expression.
Many journalists may feel stumped because of the unwieldy baggage of cultural stigma they carry, which disables them from correctly reading women’s leadership attitudes and behaviors. But they can no longer buttress themselves by window dressing women’s empowerment. Nor can they ethically analyze leadership performance by prizing masculine profusion and reducing women’s leadership to “feminine” excesses.
It’s time journalists, both male and female alike, take the sex chip off their shoulder and start thinking about women’s performance beyond outdated gender stereotypes based on expectations of traditional “macho” leadership. When covering the performance of women leaders, Emanuel Stoakes, for example, would do well to interview and quote women constituents and political analysts too. Not doing so surreptitiously discounts women’s points of view and establishes men’s viewpoints as the only valid ones, while at the same time binding a woman’s leadership capacity (in this case Ardern’s) to what men assume as too much or too little.
Journalists should also be more careful with how they structure their articles, so as not to come across as woman-dissing, discriminatory, arrogant, disdainful, and hubristic, as is the case with Stoakes’ article: Ardern’s image projection is too much because it far “exceeds” her country’s “modest” population; her tenure is defined by crisis and “goodwill” but with limited progress in everything else (defeating the virus has come at a great cost, imagine that!); she is “timid” (instead of aggressive and brazen?), a “cheery” mother (instead of distressed and depressed?) who is “inexperienced” (because she’s untutored by a man?) but “impresses by her love, kindness and empathy” (instead of hate mongering, meanness and a lack of interest and concern for others?).
The world needs more leaders like Jacinda Ardern: strong and tough, compassionate and caring, ethical and exemplary, credible and humanizing, relational and engaging. In one word: incomparable, at least to any male leader. She is neither too much nor too little. She is just right.
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