According to research in a new study, nations led by women have handled the pandemic “systematically and significantly better” in comparison to those led by men. On the surface level, it appears countries run by men such as Brazil, US, Italy, UK and Spain have struggled to cope with the virus, recording among the highest number of deaths globally. Conversely, countries led by women, like New Zealand, Finland, Taiwan, Germany, Iceland and Denmark, have fared well with considerably lower deaths. To a certain extent, this can be argued to be attributed to female led decisive policymaking. For instance, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, imposed a lockdown very early on, prior to the rapid rising of cases. On the other hand, countries like the US were still behind on testing. Germany released a thorough testing program early and began organising lockdown protocols. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has also been commended for her clarity when communicating with the country – and the rest of the world. Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, was able to control the spread of the virus through rigorous testing, tracing and isolation without having to impose a total national shutdown. She acted swiftly, with testing commencing as early as December 31. Other women leaders like Finland Prime Minister, Sanna Marin and Norway Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, have also received praise for their responses to COVID-19.
Of course, this theory has quickly gained traction with several outlets offering reasons as to why women leaders are outperforming. Their efficiency is being put down to a few shared qualities: they have excelled because of their natural ability to be empathetic, compassionate and show humility. Moreover, struggling male leaders are supposedly devoid of those traits altogether. These broad generalisations teeter on the edge of gender stereotypes. Whilst they have undeniably been great leaders during these uncertain times, a more critical take considers further context. Linking their success to played out feminine tropes ignores other variables that have massively influenced performance. This theory also brushes over the women who haven’t performed well and the male leaders who have. For instance, male-led countries such as Vietnam and the Czech Republic have recorded low death rates. Meanwhile, Belgium, led by Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, recorded one of the highest death rates.
A great deal of nuance arises when monitoring leadership performance. The economic repercussions of imposing restrictions, public ideas about the best course of action, willingness to adhere to strict measures and societal values, all in which vastly differ from nation to nation. This has left some leaders with greater trade-offs than others and, therefore, strategies with varying results. Alongside having a robust healthcare system and low population density, New Zealand isn’t a major global transport hub and it’s 2000km away from the nearest major landmass, Australia. These have all worked to Arden’s advantage even though she was wise to impose an early lockdown. Countries like India also locked down quickly but it was to avoid overwhelming a fairly lean healthcare system. Unfortunately, unintended problems still arose. An imminent lockdown saw masses return to their hometowns; which only heightened with the lack of clarity surrounding financial support to make up for lost wages. With this type of movement, the virus was likely to spread rapidly irrespective of a swift response. Are we to assume that because of the ‘female leaders are better’ theory, Ardern would still keep the death rate low under similar circumstances simply because she is a female leader? Arguably not.
Furthermore, previous outbreaks of MERS and SARS have given countries like Taiwan the advantage of experience when dealing with a virus. They already had a previous understanding as to how vital containment of the virus is, subsequently they knew to adopt an aggressive tracing/tracking strategy from early on. For several countries, a viral outbreak of this magnitude was unprecedented. Furthermore, vigorous tracing systems create a type of surveillance that wouldn’t be agreeable in other contexts, like the US for example. We saw how protests against wearing masks took place across the nation as a portion of the population felt they impeded individual freedom. Could President Tsai Ing-wen still maintain a low death rate if faced with similar challenges? It is highly likely that external factors, beyond leadership, play a vital role in the outcome of policies put in place.
Social climate prior to the pandemic was another advantage that aided the success of these women. A healthy society is likely to elect qualified and judicious leaders. Angela Merkel oversees an extremely efficient government and has been able to draw on her scientific background as a physicist. This has helped Germany avoid the inconsistent policymaking seen elsewhere. Similarly, Tsai Ing-wen has a Vice President, Chen Chien-jen, who is unlike most officials. An epidemiologist trained at Johns Hopkins University, he is an expert in viruses and has played a significant role in leading the country to recovery. As Helen Lewis wrote in the Atlantic, “Women leaders aren’t the cause of better government. They are a symptom of it”. On the other hand, from President Donald Trump’s spreading of misinformation, to Boris Johnson’s administration quickly becoming characterised by U-turns and Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro’s outright dismissal of the virus, some male leaders are a symptom of an arguably bad government. Had there been political stability in their nations, perhaps death rates would have been lower. For the sake of argument, maybe the concept of women showing more humility in leadership holds merit here. An unwillingness from the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro to collaborate with scientists does lend itself to the old adage ‘men don’t ask for directions’ – or in this case expertise. Still, this is negligible considering they are a small, albeit loud, minority.
To the credit of this theory, the countries led by these women aren’t so different to some of those led by men. There are similarities in terms of economic strength, infrastructure and the availability of income support to enable remote working. It could be argued that with the same resources at their disposal, any differences in outcome really are because of leadership styles. That said, pinning this down entirely to gender isn’t intellectually sound, especially since the sample of female leaders is too small to draw such conclusions from and does not satisfy global representation. Leadership is complex and unique, with a number of external factors needing to be recognised before passing judgement. In the difficult times we are currently facing, we can all do with more compassion, empathy and humility from top down authoritative figures, be it from a man or a woman.