Words: Evie Glen (she/her)
Artwork: Magdalena Kosut (she/her)
This article features in our third print issue of the year: Ashes to Ashes.
Coined in the 1970s by New York psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, the first acknowledgement of ‘burnout’ seemed, aptly, to come at a time of soaring inflation and political upheaval. It is no wonder, then, that the term has become a buzzword of today. Freshly permeating headlines after the shock resignations of Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon, there is a sense that this all-consuming exhaustion pilfers even those we assumed to be beyond its reach. A uniquely human struggle, these latest convalescents invoke a paradoxically contested yet prima facie observation: perhaps, as Sturgeon asserts, a politician really is just a ‘human being’. I wager it is precisely because of this perception of non-humanity, perpetuated by forces both internal and external, that politicians are predisposed to burnout. Coupled with the ultimate responsibility for a country, and in the face of daily misogynistic vitriol, burnout seems a contractual clause for female political leaders.
Throughout history, the number of female leaders around the world has remained perpetually 10% below the number of their male counterparts. Constructed within this gulf is a patriarchal definition of global leadership. Traditionally, to be a global leader was to embody the man, and to be a man was to be resiliently undeterred by feebler emotions. Though this men-don’t-cry narrative is fading in society, it seems to still play in blindingly high definition on the global political stage. There is an insurmountable expectation that global leaders ought to maintain a traditionally ‘masculine’ capacity to emotionally endure every pressure of the role. Failing to do so would be to appear vulnerable, and thus unsuited to global power. However, though it seems frustratingly obvious, this extra-human emotional endurance is really just a monstrous lack of empathy. For aspiring female leaders, this expectation posits an ultimatum: to observe or defy the patriarchal mode of leadership. To observe it is to perpetuate a model that prioritises ego over empathy (see, Boris Johnson’s limping last months of tenure), though to defy it is to defy tradition. Thus, those leaders who reject patriarchal norms, in an effort to maintain humility and humanity, are faced with the pressure to prove their strength despite their assumed vulnerability.
For female leaders, merely their gender places them under a microscope for scrutiny. With politics dominated by men, female leadership is still very much in its pioneering stages. The women who successfully traverse the patriarchal boundaries of politics are defined, even then, by their gender. As the ‘Youngest Female Global Leader’ or ‘First Female First Minister’, they are immediately set apart from their male colleagues, and consequently situated for comparison from the beginning. Female leaders are interrogated as a woman first, and a politician second.
The intensity of criticism ranges from perpetuated sexist stereotypes – such as BBC’s ‘Can Women Have it All?’ headline following Ardern’s resignation – to violently misogynistic threats of rape. Indeed, research published by the Fawcett Society found that 93% of female MPs said online abuse had a negative impact on them, while 73% said it discouraged them from raising issues on social media. This misogyny is replicated within parliament, as noted in a 2022 parliamentary report by the Women and Equalities Committee which describes a ‘culture of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct’ within the House of Commons. These compressive forces of misogyny construct an environment primed for the premature burnout of female politicians before their male colleagues. Too often, they are ignored in discussions of female burnout in politics, which instead posit a conflict between global leadership and motherhood.
To suggest female burnout is entirely the consequence of a necessarily antagonistic relationship between leadership and motherhood is pure bioessentialism, blaming the woman for her own burnout. It goes without saying these discussions do not question the capacity for men to be both leaders and fathers, because they immediately assign mothers the primary caregiving role. As such, the capacity for men to ‘have it all’ – that is, a marriage, successful career, a couple of affairs and eight (?) distant children – goes unquestioned, while a woman’s personal life is cited alongside every critique of her governing abilities, and each critique implicitly clutches to the traditional patriarchal model of leadership, constructed on an invulnerable ego.
To subvert the traditional ideal of leadership is not simply a matter of more female representation, but of the reformation of the political and media environment in which this model flourishes. It would be futile to encourage more women to enter a ‘boys club’ that perpetuates a culture of misogyny. Even if women were not discouraged from entering parliament, if she has any desire to be a mother, the system places an end date on her career at the point of an inevitable burnout. This fate of burnout is not so entrenched within male politicians, because the parliamentary system was, and still is, constructed for them.