Quiet authority that made this woman a star

Going viral: Jackie Weaver stayed calm despite abuse from male councillors. © Rebecca Lupton

Are women better leaders than men? As the world celebrates International Women’s Day today, one very modern feminist icon hopes her new dance song will promote a message of diversity.

The virtual meeting of Handforth Parish Council had descended into total chaos.

Frustrated residents were accidentally silenced. Julie’s iPad interrupted proceedings to take a phone call. One councillor had his back to the camera. Worst of all, a row about who was in charge had turned ugly: some of the town’s male officials had resorted to hurling abuse across the web.

But amidst the fighting and the fury, one woman stood firm. In the face of belittling comments – “You have no authority here!” – and verbal attacks, calm clerk Jackie Weaver deftly booted obstinate man after man into the virtual waiting room. Finally, order was restored.

For weeks, that was the end of the story. Very rarely do planning committee meetings in small English towns attract more than a few dozen viewers.

Then, one night in January, a teenager posted a clip of the meeting on social media. It was an instant hit. Suddenly, the councillors of Handforth, population 6,000, had an audience of five million.

Overnight, Jackie Weaver became an online hero. The 62-year-old was even the subject of a song by musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Now, Weaver herself has joined in, announcing her first single. She hopes “Jackie Weaver’s Kicked Him Out,” an electronic dance track, can promote diversity in local government, a culture dominated by middle-aged men.

For Weaver’s newfound fans, the launch is perfect timing. As women around the world gather virtually today to mark International Women’s Day, some point out that experiences like hers are far from uncommon.

Jackie Weaver is popular not because she presided over a farcical Zoom meeting, they say, but because she represents every woman who has ever persevered in the face of sexism.

“Jackie Weaver isn’t just a heroine to women shouted down in meetings,” writes columnist Gaby Hinsliff. “She’s a model to both sexes of how to get things done, without fuss or fanfare.”

For some, Weaver’s success proves a larger point: women are better leaders than men.

While countries with male leaders floundered, a year into the pandemic, New Zealand has suffered just 26 deaths under the command of Jacinda Ardern. And one August 2020 study found that US states with female governors had lower Covid-19 fatality rates.

Psychologists say this is due to leadership style. Most women adopt a transformational approach, using compassion and respect to build trust in a crisis.

Even Barack Obama agrees. In 2019, the former US President declared that if every country was run by a woman, living standards would improve.

It seems unlikely that this thought experiment will become a reality any time soon. Last month, Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign after claiming that women talk too much.

Gaby Hinsliff dreams that one day Jackie Weaver will be immortalised as a statue. “Women will take their small daughters to see it and deliver homilies about the importance of standing your ground with pompous and aggressive men.”

Are women better leaders than men?

Girl power

The answer is obvious, say some. The world needs more women like Jackie Weaver and government leaders like Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel. The research is definitive. Women’s respectful and compassionate leadership style is more effective than most men’s command-and-control approach. And even Barack Obama believes we would be better off if women were in charge.

The reality is more complicated, say others. Not all women make fantastic leaders: Britain’s second-ever female Prime Minister Theresa May resigned in 2019 after three years of political instability and chaos. This debate is more about different styles of leadership than it is about men versus women. The qualities we admire in Jackie Weaver – like composure and wisdom – exist in men as well.

You Decide

  1. Will the world ever achieve complete gender equality?
  2. Is one day enough to recognise the role of women in society?

Activities

  1. Write your own song or poem about Jackie Weaver’s triumph at the Handforth Parish Council meeting. Then perform your piece for the class.
  2. Research a high-profile female leader in your country. Does she fit the stereotypes of female leadership? Write half a side explaining your thoughts.

Some People Say...

“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.”

Oprah Winfrey (1954 – ), American talk show host

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that, despite the words of the Tokyo Olympics chief, women’s voices are actually underrepresented in meetings. In one classic 1976 study, communications researchers Barbara and Gene Eakins recorded seven university faculty meetings. They found that men spoke more often and for longer than women in each one. One problem is the lack of women in meetings at all – in 2019, only 7% of FTSE 100 companies, the most valuable companies in Britain, had a female CEO.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether men and women really do think and behave differently. The idea was popularised by the 1992 bestseller “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” but many scientists say the evidence is lacking. Psychologist Jane Shibley Hyde believes the two genders are much more similar than they are different. Or as she puts it: “Women are from Earth and men are from Earth”.

Word Watch

Jackie Weaver
Weaver, who works for the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, was called in to run the meeting after previous disputes.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
The English composer is best known for his hugely successful musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita.
Single
Weaver joined forces with a folk record label to make the song.
International Women’s Day
It has been celebrated on March 8th for more than a century. This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge, which urges people to challenge gender bias.
Transformational
In comparison, men have a transactional leadership style, a more achievement-oriented management approach.
Barack Obama
He said that although women “aren’t perfect”, they are “indisputably better” than men.
Homilies
A lecture focusing on moral or spiritual improvement. The word is often used to describe religious sermons.
Pompous
Self-important and domineering, originating from the Old French “pompeux” or “full of grandeur”.
Angela Merkel
Merkel, the first female Chancellor of Germany, has been in office for nearly 16 years.

Subjects

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