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‘Zip it, sweetie’ — PM Jacinda Ardern had to face sexism not just from men, but women too

In ‘Jacinda Ardern’, Supriya Vani and Carl A. Harte write about the New Zealand PM’s journey from a politician and administrator to an international icon.

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Zip it, sweetie.’ Surely this sentence, directed at Jacinda Ardern in Parliament, is a clear example of male chauvinism. Patronising, sexist and belittling, it is the kind of speech that brings Parliament into disrepute. The words were spoken in anger by a minister under pressure from Ardern and several of her colleagues in a question time in November 2012, but this hardly excuses such behaviour. The remark might well have attracted parliamentary censure – if it hadn’t been spoken by a woman: Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett.

Instead, ‘Zip it, sweetie’ became almost a meme, a tagline voted Massey University’s winner of the Quote of the Year Competition for 2012. Dr Heather Kavan from the university’s School of Communication explained its appeal succinctly: ‘There’s something almost primal about two women fighting …’ No doubt. And men, too – which is why we have competitive boxing and mixed martial arts matches.

Ardern laughed off Bennett’s snideness, tweeting, ‘Kids in the gallery could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a Hairspray revival.’ A few months earlier, she had endured sniping from a prominent National Party member, Maggie Barry. Barry suggested Ardern was not qualified to raise a question on paid parental leave, asking, ‘How many kids do you have?’ When the opposite side of the House erupted with indignation, Barry added, ‘Don’t be so precious, petal.’ More than five years later, Ardern would face off against Bennett –deputy leader of the opposition against deputy prime minister. The media looked forward to the parliamentary fire-fight with glee.

If ‘Zip it, sweetie’ was a Hairspray revival, this was Mean Girls 2. The New Zealand Herald’s headline on 15 March, ‘Gloves off: National MPs target Jacinda Ardern in series of attacks’, encapsulated the drama in the House. Yet it didn’t highlight one crucial fact: the members attacking Ardern were women.


Also read: How NZ PM Jacinda Ardern became an effective leader & international icon, new book reveals


Things were little better with the National’s Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins, another of Ardern’s detractors in the House. Collins, a woman with a steely glare who seems to relish confrontation, was known as Crusher from her time as police and corrections minister, when in 2009 she proposed legislation not simply to impound the cars of illegal street racers, but to crush them. She revelled in the sobriquet – indeed, she seemed to cultivate the image it implied. An inveterate political infighter, she was at the centre of smear campaigns with the right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, which came to light in 2014 with Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. Her notorious hacked emails published in the book revealed she referred to Ardern as ‘my little pony’.

Ardern loathed being called a pony but didn’t rise to the bait. Perhaps she didn’t want to dignify it with a response. Unquestionably, the treatment meted out to her by senior government politicians – fellow women politicians, no less – had the flavour of bitchy high-school bullying. While it might be tempting to suggest the women involved had been used as proxies by their male colleagues, wary of a backlash should they target Ardern, the spontaneity of at least some of the attacks, and the way the National Party women seemed to relish going on the offensive, suggests otherwise. So much for sisterhood.

Ardern’s experience with her woman colleagues is far from unusual – it is, indeed, far too common. So prevalent is the phenomenon of women campaigning against other women as they rise in seniority, there’s even a name for it: queen bee syndrome.

Queen bee syndrome is a strange, almost perverse counterpart of the discrimination and sexual harassment women have suffered since time immemorial, highlighted in recent times by the #MeToo movement. On one hand, women tread their way around male sexual predators from the shop floor to the boardroom. And on the way upwards, they contend not merely with unsympathetic men and systemic discrimination, but sometimes with women above them who seem to resent their rise, and are hell-bent on stopping it.

Marilyn Waring has spoken of this phenomenon. Ardern has referred to her discussion of the issue in interviews. Waring, the teenage Jacinda’s idol, saw it was necessary for a woman to get her ‘foot in the door …[for] the next feminist coming behind’. Waring, the ‘amazing politician [from] the seventies,’ Ardern recounts, ‘said there [are] two types of women in this world. There are ones who fight so hard to get where they’re going, they shove their foot in the door, and they pull through as many women as they can. And there are others who pull their foot out and close it shut.’

What is it that leads the latter kind of women to stop their junior sisters from progressing in the workplace? Using another metaphor, why would a successful woman, whose climb to positions of power has been fraught with challenges far beyond those of her male colleagues, try to pull the ladder up behind her?

The concept of queen been syndrome has been controversial since it was suggested by G. L. Staines, T. E. Jayaratne and C. Tavris in the book The Female Experience in 1973. There are numerous studies that support its existence, that corroborate anecdotal evidence of women feeling victimised at work by women managers. One, by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2017, suggests that while most workplace bullies are men, women bosses largely direct their hostility towards their female staff. The survey shows that in the sample of respondents, two-thirds of victims of female bullies were women.


Also read: Biased AI systems contributing to $17bn gender credit gap in emerging markets: Study


 

Explanations for the queen bee phenomenon are fairly logical. The root of it, of course, is competition. As Ardern says, ‘[Women] feel a sense they had to work really hard and fight really hard to get where they are, and then they feel a sense of competition amongst other women.’ Some experts say that queen bees exist, but are far less common in most workplaces than people might believe. They suggest that queen bee behaviour is a woman’s response to sexism – that is, she distances herself from other women as a defence in an inherently sexist environment, so she won’t be targeted.

Whatever the prevalence of queen bees in a normal workplace, Ardern seemed to have run into a small swarm of them on the floor of Parliament – women who were in the upper echelons of their party, well ensconced in the Beehive.

Parliament, at any rate, is no ordinary workplace: if there is a queen bee to be found, politics is a most likely place to find her. Narcissists, obsessive compulsives, Machiavellian types, authoritarians, and those with paranoid tendencies, abound in Parliament. Queen bees might fit nicely in at least half of these categories. At any rate, New Zealand’s Parliament, as with most legislatures almost anywhere, was founded by men, to suit men’s needs, proclivities and expectations.

To say that most women find New Zealand’s Parliament repellent – as women do about other parliaments throughout the world – is an understatement. Members find themselves in verbal battles in the House that sometimes descend into exchanges demeaning the institution as much as the members involved. After watching parliamentary question time, many competent women leaders recoil from the mere thought of spending days in the debating chamber.

Even the hardiest of women describe Parliament as a hostile workplace. Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins is scathing of the ‘toxic work environment’ in Parliament which is, she declares, ‘the worst environment I have ever worked in’ (she was a lawyer before entering politics). It is ‘similar to what I imagine a 1920s boys’ boarding school to have been’, she says, comparing it to Lord of the Flies.

Ardern’s thoughts on this are subtler, though she speaks of the general unfriendliness of Parliament, and politics in general, for women. Aside from ‘systemic issues’, Ardern told Supriya, women are less prevalent in politics, in part because it ‘is perceived to be an ugly place, where there are personal attacks, where you sacrifice a lot, [from] a woman’s perspective … for what’s perceived to be little reward, because … there’s very few people who thank a politician, and I understand that’.

In her interview with Supriya, Ardern posed a question that is for the next generation to ponder: ‘So how do we attract women, who don’t … seem as obviously motivated by power, to be motivated into … a profession where that seems to be the only selling point?’ She offers a wise suggestion: ‘For me,’ she says, ‘it’s about reshaping what it is to be a politician, and demonstrating that you don’t have to change your character traits, you don’t have to change your personality, that you can be motivated by … a different set … of goals, and that actually you can take a bit of ego out of it as well. And so it’s modelling a different way of doing things.’

This excerpt of Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy has been published with special permission from Harper Collins.

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