But that all changed on August 1 2017. That day, Ardern became the leader of the Labour party, taking on what she herself described as the “worst job in politics”.
She wasn’t kidding.
At the time, there was just eight weeks left until the New Zealand election, and Labour had slumped in the polls. With just 24 per cent of the vote, it was staring down the barrel of its worst election result in history.
And Ardern, who is just 37 and has no leadership experience, let alone a track record outside of politics, wasn’t exactly a shoo-in for Prime Minister. In New Zealand rugby parlance, her decision to take on the leadership at this precise moment in political history seemed like a “hospital pass” - an un-winnable move that could only end in disaster.
But in an upset that has shocked New Zealand (and even, to some extent, those who voted for her) Ardern was yesterday announced as the country’s new Prime Minister, after New Zealand First leader Winston Peters revealed he would form a coalition government with Labour rather than the incumbent National Party after a hung election.
Much has been written about why Ardern prevailed. Hundreds of column inches have been devoted to the “Ardern effect” (or "Jacindamania") and her charismatic, toothy grin, her dedication to classic Labour causes such as eliminating child poverty and her youthful appeal (she DJs in her spare time).
But there’s another factor at play: the glass cliff. That’s the phenomenon whereby women who have broken through the glass ceiling are only handed leadership jobs during tricky times, when the situation is so dire that they’re practically doomed to fail. Or, in other words, when men don’t want a bar of it.
The term ‘glass cliff’ was coined by British researchers who noticed the phenomenon in politics and business. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is said to have teetered on the edge of the glass cliff when she became the Tory leader after David Cameron and Boris Johnson both walked away from it in the wake of Brexit. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayor (the company’s seventh CEO in as many years) is another victim.
Researchers say that one explanation for the glass cliff is that, when times are tough, people are often keen for a dramatic change in leadership - providing a much-needed opening for women and minorities. Another is that people believe that women are valuable in a crisis. A less charitable reading is that women are often shunted to the top position when businesses and political parties need a fall guy.
Whatever the case, Ardern has found herself at the top of the cliff now. What remains to be seen is whether she’ll stay there.