HomeLearning CenterNicola Sturgeon Resignation Hints at Shifting Norms for Women

Nicola Sturgeon Resignation Hints at Shifting Norms for Women

In an emotional speech that referenced the heavy personal toll of a life in politics, Nicola Sturgeon announced today that she would resign as first minister of Scotland after eight years on the job.

“Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it — the country deserves nothing less,” she said in her resignation announcement. “But in truth, that can only be done by anyone for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.”

Her remarks immediately drew comparisons to those offered a few weeks ago when New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, resigned, saying she didn’t have the “full tank plus a bit in reserve” that leaders needed. “Politicians are human,” Ardern said. “We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me it’s time.”

Female leaders are still a relative rarity, but the comparisons between the two resignations were about more than just shared gender. (Notably, when Ardern stepped down, almost no one mentioned Liz Truss, who had resigned as Britain’s prime minister after a disastrously short tenure just a few months earlier.)

Both Sturgeon and Ardern stepped down following political setbacks, but not scandals, putting them in sharp contrast to leaders like Boris Johnson, who held on to power through multiple scandals before being forced out by a revolt within his own party. And while in office, both women projected caring and protective political personas, especially during the Covid pandemic, though Sturgeon was often spikier in her dealings with the government in Westminster.

Their resignations hint at a shift in the traits perceived as powerful and desirable in leaders that could have far-reaching consequences for governance, as well as for women’s ability to win political power.

Resigning before being forced out can be a way to leave office with an intact political reputation, but it also carries the risk of looking like, well, a quitter.

Both leaders had recently suffered significant political setbacks.

Ardern’s party was plunging in the polls amid voter dissatisfaction with the economy and inflation. Sturgeon’s party suffered a major blow to its campaign for Scottish independence when a court held in November that a new independence referendum would have to be approved by the British Parliament. And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to block a Scottish bill that would have made it easier for people to officially change their gender threatened a constitutional crisis over Scotland’s ability to pass its own laws.

But Sturgeon’s resignation speech suggests that she looked to Ardern as a model, if not for the decision itself, then at least for how best to present it to the public.

Both women spoke of their desire to spend more time with their families — Sturgeon with her teenage niece and nephew; Ardern with her young children. That rationale has long been seen as a cliché for a leader forced to resign under less-than-ideal circumstances. But it hits differently with female leaders.

Sturgeon and Ardern moved beyond platitudes to describe the specific roles they had missed out on and hoped to fulfill. And such roles are traditionally perceived as valuable and important for women in ways they are not for men. (Though perhaps not valued by everyone — Sturgeon joked that her niece and nephew are 17 years old, “exactly the age to be horrified at the thought of your auntie suddenly having more time for you.”)

That suggests one way that women can sidestep the Catch-22 that many women face when they try to exercise power or authority: The commonly held image of a “strong leader” is someone confident and swaggering, but research shows that if women act that way, they are seen as unlikable and even as illegitimate leaders. Often, the response to such findings focuses on how to lessen the penalty women face for going against gender stereotypes. But another approach is to work on the problem from the opposite direction, shifting perceptions of strong leadership to include traits more stereotypically associated with women.

The New York Times

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