To steal a recent New York Times headline, “What Happens When Women Stop Leading Like Men?”. This was of course a response to the world wide love and respect for Jacinda Adern’s handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting and it raises quite another unwritten question, are women essentially different from men or have we all just been constructed differently by society and culture? The most prominent wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s proclaimed that women were equal to men and this meant that they could do anything that men could do. The male example/experience/existence was taken as the standard to which women must measure up. Philosophers such as Luce Irigaray argue that for women to achieve real equality there must be a shift in this perception of male (and a certain type of male) as the benchmark against which all else is judged. We must begin to recognise and appreciate difference for itself not as a lesser version of the standard.
The example of Jacinda Ardern as reported by Tina Brown in the NY Times illustrates this point well. Many of the attributes Ms Ardern has displayed during this period would once have been criticised for being weak and overly emotional. In short, too female. Unlike many previous women leaders who have worked hard to show that they can be as tough as any man, Jacinda Ardern has been unashamedly herself and fought to demonstrate that empathy and shows of emotion are characteristics of good leadership. Whether you believe these are inherently female characteristics or simply something women are more likely to have been taught is not as important in the end as the question; what are these arbitrary standards against which we are all judged? How were they established and why do we accept them as a truth rather than just an opinion? Next month I will explore the role language plays in establishing and maintaining these truths.