THE corridors of power in both business and politics were designed by, and for, a very specific kind of leader: men.
That’s why it can feel particularly devastating when we see a woman like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — who has managed to successfully navigate through what often seems like an impenetrable boys’ club — decide that she’s had it.
Ardern’s announcement that she just didn’t have “enough in the tank” to keep doing the job could be read as a concession that those unbalanced power dynamics had finally gotten to her. Not only did she face sagging opinion polls and a tough election battle ahead of her, but one in which she would likely have to endure the kind of misogynistic slights and outright attacks that have marked her time in the office.
And yet in the aftermath of her announcement, I keep returning to something former Xerox Corp. CEO Ursula Burns said to me for a 2021 article I wrote for Fortune about the ways the pandemic was altering the landscape for working women. Burns, who was the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company, was ready to see a world where women play by their own rules rather than follow ones that had been forced upon them. “I want them to actually have the chance to articulate out loud, ‘I don’t want to do this. Thank you for offering,’” she told me. “That’s true equity, that’s true equality — when you get the chance to turn the goddamn thing down.”
I prefer to think about Ardern’s departure through this lens. Stepping away from the big job, or adjusting your ambitions because the old ones don’t work with the life you want for yourself, is the ultimate power flex. And for Ardern, it really is not that surprising a move considering she has always seemed comfortable defying the mold of what we expect a leader to look and sound like: the youngest female head of government at age 37, only the second ever to give birth while holding office, and even now in how she’s framing her departure. It is difficult to picture a man in the same position admitting to some level of burnout.
Ardern’s decision feels different than the kind of “opting out” we used to talk about in the past. It’s also in keeping with some of the trends we’re seeing in the business world. Increasingly women are choosing to leave their jobs in order to create a new path, rather than just endure their current environment or disappear from the workplace altogether. McKinsey & Co.’s annual Women in the Workplace report from late last year found that “women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it.” Those in leadership roles were switching jobs at the highest rate in the history of the survey, and at higher rates than men.
New Zealand’s political climate may very well have made Ardern’s future as prime minister impossible and her departure inevitable. But by stepping down on her own terms, she’s rebelling against the status quo rather than simply falling victim to it. As Burns said, true equity and equality may be as simple as having the option and privilege of saying no to what’s expected of us. In a barrier-breaking run as prime minister, she may as well topple this last one on her way out the door.