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2023-03-08 Simona Cuomo

Women and power: what the recent “illustrious resignations” teach us

Headlines were recently captured by the decision by the First Minister of Scotland and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, as well as the CEO of YouTube, to submit their resignations without there being any reasons of a political or economic nature – at least in their public statements. Their stories help us to adopt a new perspective in interpreting the grammar of power that has prevalently shaped leadership until recent times, reminding us that it is not limited to the role, but extends above all to the person who plays it.

In these first months of 2023, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and the CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, have publicly announced their resignations prior to the end of their terms in the case of the premiers, and without an express request from the BoD in the case of the CEO. Despite considering the respective specific features, these “illustrious” resignations seem to belong to the same script: the desire to regain one’s private life and time, that is difficult to reconcile with a job that requires total commitment and dedication; a job that thus not only leaves little room for loved ones and personal passions, but creates stress and consumes energy.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand resigned due to the fatigue that did not allow her to “do justice” to her position.[1] “I am human, politicians are human, we give all that we can for as long as we can and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time,” she explained. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chose to say goodbye to her position by explaining: “The time has come for me to go. […] Nicola Sturgeon has been a politician all her life. Now I want to dedicate a bit of time to Nicola Sturgeon the human being. Does that seem selfish? I hope not. My family is my rock.”[2] The CEO of YouTube Susan Wojcicki, one of the most highly regarded women of Silicon Valley, stated as follows in explaining her decision: “After nearly 25 years here, I have decided to step down from my role as YouTube’s head and focus on my family, my health, and projects I am passionate about.”[3]

These announcements were thus surprising not only because they came early with respect to the end of the women’s terms, but above all because they were presented as personal decisions, not linked to political-institutional or business crises. These leaders spoke of themselves as “women” beyond their role, reminding us that the role is a tool be used to serve a community of citizens or workers, and that it is played by a person. And at a certain point the person can recognize that she has exhausted her emotional, intellectual, and physical energies for a role that, if interpreted with passion and responsibility, requires total dedication.

It is precisely this “human” interpretation of the role that makes it possible to take it on with the responsibility of knowing when you are the right person to lead, and when you no longer are. A moment thus comes for leaders to leave their role, recognizing their limits. There have been many reflections regarding these decisions, because high-level political and managerial careers usually do not end this way. No other analogous examples of leaders who have publicly stated that they are no longer the right person come to mind. And the fact that this ending was written by three women appears problematic to many, who have judged it as an act of weakness, or worse, of incompetence by the women, who are considered unsuited to manage power. But does it not happen to many people, including this writer, who do jobs that are much less demanding, with lesser responsibilities, who make decisions that do not entail the consequences of a leader’s decisions, to feel tired at a certain point, lacking energy, and thinking that perhaps that job is no longer right for them?

Trying to reflect on oneself and one’s own professional history, it should not be surprising that a person who has performed a function with a greater level of responsibility says that she has exhausted her motivation and energy. Perhaps we should invert the point of view on what is normal with respect to playing a leadership role, and more than interpret these resignations as an act of incompetence, think that in certain cases other leaders without energy have preferred to remain in power, evidently exploiting the benefits of their position, sometimes knowing and other times not realizing the fact that they were no longer able to perform the role.

Finally, it is not secondary to recognize that all of this has happened to women. Maybe this has to do with the relationship between women and power, and even more so between powerful women and the models they are asked to follow. Models that are in evident conflict with the thought of caring for themselves and the sum of relationships which are to be valued. It is difficult not to sense in these stories the effect of exclusion that systems of power exercise towards women, or better, towards the female component in the citizenship of power.

Until now the grammar of power has been shaped in male form. And thus many women hold high positions often boasting of their ability to compete and resist. But these stories of honesty and authenticity seem to break down this grammar. And these events perhaps could have happened only in this time period, in which the attention to the dimension of wellbeing and quality of life has acquired new importance for everyone. Thus the message of these stories can be precious; if we understand how the individual stories are nourished by collective processes, making them obvious, if they become a stimulus for a renewed reflection on the meaning that can be attributed to power and the shape of the role that is to be represented through power.

Foto iStock - Martin Barraud