May 29, 2023

The dangerous false narrative that misogyny led to Ardern’s resignation

The dangerous false narrative that misogyny led to Ardern's resignation

If we say misogynistic abuse led to former PM Jacinda Ardern’s resignation, we make a female leader look weak, and risk glorifying and empowering misogynists

Opinion: The Labour party had quite a poll bump after Chris Hipkins became Prime Minister. Is this turnaround in poll numbers the typical “novelty boost”, or does it validate the idea that misogyny is alive and too well in New Zealand?

Maybe the latter, but the narrative that misogyny broke former prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s mettle is wrong and unwise, and such a narrative only discourages young women from aspiring to be a leader in the future. Instead, understanding how misogyny evolves and what policies might reduce its potency would provide an alternative narrative that would attract future generations of female leaders.

Misogyny has a deeply rooted economic origin. A Harvard study published in 2013, “On the Origins of Gender roles: Women and the Plough”, established how the descendants of societies that traditionally used plough agriculture, which had a very gendered division of labour, also had less equal gender norms today. Subsequent studies have extended that argument for economies based on other muscle-power-driven industries such as construction.


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Women received punishment or hatred for disobeying those norms because it was seen to endanger human survival, especially in societies dependent on primitive technology. However, history has also shown that as technology advances, increasing the role of brain power relative to muscle power, thereby empowering women in their economic relationship with men, misogyny subsides.

Jacinda Ardern did endure misogyny, but she didn’t typically seem to suffer from it, as evidenced in her response to Donald Trump, when he told her she had “caused a lot of upset” in New Zealand when elected as prime minister. She smiled back, and said “no one marched when I was elected”. Her pithy responses to misogynist bullying have been piercing on many other occasions.

Which narrative should we entertain about Ardern’s resignation? Neuroscience has advanced enough to warn us against our confirmation bias: we see what we want to see, what we already believe, or what we have been told.

If we say misogyny led to Ardern’s resignation, we strengthen its political and social base while making a female leader look weak, and we’re at risk of glorifying and empowering misogynists and misogyny.

We would be better to remember Ardern’s strength and find evidenced-based reasons for her resignation, her own cost-benefit analysis.

Ardern explained her decision to resign. She did not have enough in the tank to carry on, and she had the courage to recognise that. It takes strength to leave something one loves. She did not seem to particularly love power though. So, power did not corrupt her.

What we do know from previous research is that misogyny is a symptom of an old habit that brews up in a stagnant economy. It has been with us since men took up the plough and women accepted life at home, bearing and raising children.

Our earlier forms of technology were heavy and required muscular strength so men, naturally endowed with muscle, took charge while women, despite being equally endowed mentally, went home to mind children. Societies led by religious leaders formalised that division of labour as a suitable gender norm for survival, inscribing it into their sacred scriptures. This was a moral order that made women’s right to work secondary, if not redundant.

Societies have also publicly condemned and punished women who break that moral code, as Joan of Arc was, and women in Iran and Afghanistan today have been.

However, there is growing evidence that as technology relies more on mental labour, industries demand more female leaders, weakening misogyny in the process. So too if a government empowers women to meet that demand: the American Economic Review published an influential paper on how providing economic incentives for women to work, facilitated a cultural change that leads to the intergenerational demise of misogyny.

How people live or earn their living shapes their attitudes towards women, so it’s not surprising that norm-breaking women who gain power in any field face more vitriol than their male counterparts.

But Ardern was a visionary leader with success unparalleled on today’s world stage, leading New Zealand through terrorism, disaster, and Covid. She led by example to inspire world leaders to focus on empathy as an alternative to pride. 

As people learn to accept new norms as they witness women’s success over a sustained period, we can expect misogyny to die out. This may take time, but it will happen, provided we don’t discourage women from aspiring to powerful positions out of fear of misogynist attacks.

We would be better to remember Ardern’s strength and find evidenced-based reasons for her resignation, her own cost-benefit analysis. We need to consider how the media narrative of ‘misogyny crushing Jacinda’ influences the mind of young women aspiring to be a leader in future and gives misogynists more credit than they deserve.

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