The resignation of two national leaders, both women, has cast light on the risk of burnout. What lessons are there for female leaders in the resignations of Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon, asks Byrne Dean chief executive Victoria Lewis.
Former prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern said she had “nothing left in the tank” during her resignation speech while Scotland’s long-serving first minister Nicola Sturgeon cited the “relentlessly hard” day-to-day nature of her job. Did these two feel the stresses of their roles to a greater extent than men or were they or were simply more honest about how they felt and their own performance?
It is never questioned that a dad couldn’t perform at his best while being a parent”
What can be said with certainty is that these kinds of reasons aren’t raised in the context of their male contemporaries. You don’t have to go too far back to remember the former US president, Donald Trump, refusing to respect the outcome of a democratic election, citing foul play at the end of his career to cling onto his position in office. Or Boris Johnson putting his departure in office down to “them’s the breaks”, despite mounting speculation and the arrival at his door of several penalty charge notices.
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The potential causes and contributing factors to resignations are many and varied, but in a gender context at its core is a sense that women hold themselves to higher account, with an internal, rather than external, locus of control. In the fallout, it’s important to challenge ourselves on the role misogyny is playing in Ardern and Sturgeon’s decisions to step down – arguably ahead of their time – and turn a spotlight on the extreme reaction to honest and transparent communication, of very human feelings.
Does good look different for men and women?
Through their gender Ardern and Sturgeon represented firsts for their nations. Both are admired, respected and have weathered far harder political storms in their tenures than their most recent challenges in their roles.
Yet both have talked openly about no longer being able to perform at their optimal levels. They knew in their heads and hearts what their best was, so they knew when they felt they weren’t achieving it. Arguably, this could well be connected to their gender – it’s been shown time and again that women are harsher critics of their own performance than men are. Hewlett Packard found that men apply for roles when they meet 60% of the qualifications, while women will only apply if they meet 100%. Perhaps it is this self-awareness that they are no longer capable of performing at their best, and the willingness to share this, that explains why burnout appears higher in women than men.
Women could be less prepared to tolerate dips in their performance than their male counterparts”
Is self-awareness a weakness or strength?
All too often I see a willingness for organisations to settle for mediocre performances. The continued recruitment of individuals from a similar path creates a “group think” that can exacerbate bad habits. I’ve seen a complete lack of curiosity of what “other” might look like, and a failure to tackle performance conversations effectively because people think they are being kind rather than dishonest. Should we not be applauding those that have the courage to set such high bars for their own performance and are not willing to “fake it”?
Perhaps it means that women are less prepared to tolerate dips in their performance than their male counterparts. Rather than aggregating their performance across a timespan they take a more short-term view, believing or perhaps having always been told “they cannot have it all”. This one term, in itself, sums up a lot of the issues around this debate. For one, it is only ever used for mothers. It is never questioned that a “dad” couldn’t perform at his best while being a parent. This may well be because of the differing expectations on parents when it comes to caring roles. For years women have recognised these challenges. Some have struggled through, often without the support of their peers. Some have thrived. And many have decided enough is enough, flexing their self-awareness to want to do one job – perhaps simply being a parent – the best they possibly can.
Personally, I believe that self-awareness and success are not mutually exclusive. Authenticity and vulnerability ultimately translate to strength.
Burnout in women
Although I applaud this high bar being set, I am concerned that the levels of burnout being recorded in women are coming in part from this desire for perfectionism. A McKinsey report highlighted that female leaders experience much higher rates of burnout than men, 40% compared to 33%. This rose during the pandemic, as working women took on the bulk of the home schooling, running of the household and their own careers. It may have looked as though hybrid working was the long-awaited answer to many of the gender issues in the workplace and the extra flexibility certainly helped in some ways.
However, it seems this has ended up being a bit of a poisoned chalice. I hear so often when I run listening groups for clients how there is a tier system in place – there is a “presence premium”. It matters, whether you are in the office with your boss. Now the working mother has another issue to juggle. Additionally, we should not negate the exhausting and cumulative effect of what these women have been through. Ardern ran New Zealand through Covid, an earthquake, a mass shooting and then moved into a global economic crisis. Is it any wonder her bucket was empty?
Address pressures on female leaders
Ultimately, women need to be able to have the conversations they need to have, early on, so that they can set the stage for their own careers. Encouragingly, there are now coaching and training options to help them know where to start. The hope is that the more women who challenge the system internally, crucially at a time when they are “in the system” before they go on leave, the higher the chance of success. But for this to work, managers and leaders need to be engaged, to listen, to be open to the obstacles in the system that create a bumpier road for some people than others. The energy needed to traverse the bumpier road is draining, it takes a toll.
For Ardern and Sturgeon, their “leader” was the electorate. Ultimately they chose their timing and made a conscious decision to stand down when their reputations were still on a relative high. Whether you agree with their politics or not, they chose to leave instead and we lost two legendary female role models as a result.
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