As Downing Street welcomes its third female Prime Minister, Rachel Morris reflects on social and media expectations of certain women leaders

It’s a warm summer night in a liberal country in the northern hemisphere. A group of friends, many in their 30s, hold a party in a private venue, some of them celebrities and ‘influencers’. They hug, dance, drink and pose for selfies, which spread across social media with a particular focus on one woman.

A Social Democratic Party MP since 2015, Sanna Marin has served as the Prime Minister of Finland since 2019. She grew up amid familial struggles with divorce, finances and alcoholism, and worked in service jobs while studying at university, the first in her family to attend.

Marin was 34 when she took office, the youngest leader in Finnish history. She led her country through the pandemic with only 5,577 deaths (one of every 992 souls lost, compared to one of every 327 in the UK).

You’d think that a young woman enjoying a party would be entirely normal, but it caused a furore.

There were some questions about who she was with – the claim that high-profile invitees make her an elitist. But most of the criticism was directed at her partying. She felt compelled to make a tearful public apology and do a drugs test, which came back negative.

Compared to Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ scandal, the fuss seems absurd. Finland wasn’t under any Coronavirus restrictions, everyone involved was a consenting adult, and there was nothing untoward about the event.

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Women and men all over the world agree. Many, including former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shared supportive messages and images of themselves dancing. US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote: “Elected officials who dance? We’re here for it.”

Others expressed frustration that a woman leader can attract so much flak for partying when there are male leaders breaking the law and worse with impunity.

There has been the suggestion that most online attempts to discredit Marin were a campaign engineered by Russia, disgruntled at her petition for Finland to join NATO following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But people elsewhere on the right wing, including women in Britain, have also piled on.

Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Telegraph that it isn’t sexist to criticise Marin in the circumstances, accusing her of “a blatant dereliction of duty at a time of war”.

Baroness Karren Brady wrote an article for the Sun, saying that “the booze-soaked antics of the Finnish Prime Minister were more akin to a teenager raving it up on Mykonos after their ‘A’ Level results than a serious world leader… now that’s what I call a Partygate”. She compared Marin to vacuous 1990s ‘It Girls’ and posited: “Perhaps it’s a lifestyle that just isn’t compatible with being taken seriously as PM?… the party may soon be over.”

This from a woman whose own workplace, Parliament, has problems with drugs, alcohol and sexual assault, and who belongs to the party of Partygate; one of whose MPs stood down from the Commons after being caught watching porn in the chamber. It isn’t just men who inflict double standards on women.

‘Worse Than it Ever Has Been’

British sailor Tracy Edwards developed and skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, creating a British racing record unbroken since 1977 and becoming the first woman awarded Yachtsman of the Year.

That journey was chronicled in the 2018 documentary film Maiden, the name of the boat they restored and raced. Edwards has deepened her leadership experience since and now skippers Maiden in another way: the boat is a global ambassador for the empowerment of girls and women through education, both mascot and classroom of the Maiden Factor Foundation.

For Edwards, women have always been leaders, always had the capacity for it – a fact largely missing from history, meaning that women still aren’t always seen as natural leaders.

Maiden more or less begins with Edwards being told by a man to smile, then being told she’s not doing it properly. She says now that the sexism faced by her and her crew at the time wasn’t pleasant or easy, but it was open and easier to challenge, stemming mainly from ignorance rather than hatred. She says this has now changed.

“The misogyny now is worse than it ever has been in my lifetime,” she told me. “I think it’s on purpose. I don’t think it’s ignorance anymore – I think it’s fear. There’s an edge, a nastiness to it. There’s a more calculated side, it’s targeted, it’s deliberate. What young women have to deal with now really scares me.”

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This also appears to be the approach of some media outlets, which are perfectly able to avoid misogyny in their coverage on certain subjects or in relation to certain women, but will let sexism soar when it suits them.

Edwards faced significant sexism from the media decades ago and believes the press is “better and more careful” and “more aware of themselves” now.

Women jump hurdle after hurdle to gain power and influence, intending to use it for the greater good, then must expend yet more time and energy pushing past irrelevant and unfair barriers once they have it. Some of this is the clickbait cut-and-thrust game any politician faces, but misogyny provides additional weapons, sharpened over millennia, for this purpose.

This isn’t just a problem for those on the receiving end. Every minute spent dealing with the outcomes of such violence is a minute less spent making the world better. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pointed out that fear of such pile-ons could put women off seeking leadership roles.

The Marin party saga is only the latest episode in the targeted misogynistic harassment of the Finnish Government since 2019, when all five parties in its centre-left coalition were led by women, mostly under 40. According to research, the abuse was aimed at “attacking their values, demeaning their decision-making skills, and questioning their leadership abilities”.

Magdalena Andersson, who heads the Swedish Government, also suffers attacks from a misogynistic far right, weakening her position.

Finland under Sanna Marin’s leadership leads the world in its sustainable development, business environment, strong rule of law, and remarkable education system. In one sense, the scandal around her partying reflects the high standards expected of the country’s politicians.

However, women are held to an even higher standard (at least those on the left or centre of politics). Boys will be boys, but girls must be good girls.

Prime Minister Liz Truss should be confronted on any idiocy, dishonesty, gaslighting, cynicism, and far-right links and beliefs. Not because she’s female, but because it’s time the UK was led by people with higher ethical standards who can produce better outcomes for every sector of society and the environment.

Not weaponised sexism, but good old-fashioned accountability. Remember that?


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