As UK Prime Minister Theresa May calls to congratulate the newly elected New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern, May is struggling to hold onto the leadership of the British Conservatives, a party she has only led since July 2016. Despite the challenges facing May, she has taken the time to call Ardern.
Both Ardern and May are very different: Ardern is a social democrat and May is a conservative. Yet, this has not hindered May from reaching out to Ardern, a newly elected woman on the other side of the world. Perhaps this shows that the importance of mentoring women in politics is greater than the differences they may have.
Perhaps there is merit in the quote from Madeleine Albright that "there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women".
Lessthan one in five parliamentarians across the world are women and few are leaders of their Party. Amongdeveloped-world nations, only 17% of government ministers are women. Given this, mentoring matters. Researchconsistently shows that mentoring increases women's opportunities and successes in business and in politics.
In 2005 May co-founded the 'Women2Win' organisation, a mentoring project to advance gender equality among Conservative Party members. May sought to build an environment within the Party that normalised the idea of female political representation. Arguing that women needed to be determined and resilient, she advocated for a change in attitudes about women's contribution to, and in, politics. But as with all Conservative Parties globally, including the Liberal and National Parties in Australia, she didn't advocate for a gender quota. Instead it was about changing social attitudes about politics being a 'man's game'.
Labor candidates in Australia benefit from mentoring via Emily's List, with former and current politicians as its members, including Julia Gillard. Emily's List in the US continues to support the campaigns of Democrat women, including Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Mentoring, as May knows, is necessary to increase female representation, to encourage leadership advancement and to be there when things go wrong. And things do go wrong, especially when women are elected as leaders to stem looming electoral disaster. Theresa May herself was elected to the leadership of the Conservative Party, largely for this reason. So too were Julia Gillard and Jacinda Ardern.
A curious question of gender
During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Julia Gillard, wrote an open letter to Hillary Clinton in The New York Times about the "curious question of gender" – those stereotypes about women leaders as unlikeable or cold. Yet, it seems that political parties will elect women leaders when, as Julia Baird suggests, there's a "mess to clean up". Perhaps it's that the men don't want to be at the helm of the sinking ship. Or is there perhaps a belief that women, placed in these precarious positions, may just resurrect the status of the Party, ready for male politicians to return to the leadership?
While May might be the leader who takes female British leadership over the glass cliff, Ardern continues the New Zealand tradition of not only breaking, but smashing the glass ceiling. Ardern becomes the third female PM of NZ after Jenny Shipley and Helen Clarke. But, as May might have told Ardern in their phone conversation, female leaders face different challenges from their male counterparts. Something that Gillard and Clinton know too well.
The media shape our views of female leadership. Most of it is negative and denigrating and not called out enough. So why then would women wish to enter politics? And can mentorship override the negativity for women considering a political life?
Julia Gillard received media coverage that was at best uncalled for and at its worst, offensive, sexist, and vulgar. Clinton received similar vitriol, upon which she reflected in a recent interview. It seems personal attacks and scrutiny of appearance and clothingare fair game, overriding the policy contributions of May, Gillardand Clinton. During the NZ election, The Opportunity Party (TOP) leader Gareth Morgan, called on Ardern to show she was more than "lipstick on a pig".May's recent speechto the Conservative Party was overshadowed by commentary on her, rather than a critique of its content. It seems May and Ardern can have a good chat about the media.
But the challenge to women in politics doesn't just come from the media. Challenges to Gillard's leadership and character came from both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd. Clinton had to face off Republican Donald Trump, FBI Director James Comey and to some degree, Democrat Bernie Sanders. May is currently faced with the strengthened voice of Labour's Jeremy Corbin and being undermined from within by Boris Johnson. With these challenges it is especially important that female politicians reach across the ditch to Jacinda Ardern. Well done Theresa May!