We all have distinct leadership styles. During the times of COVID-19, we have been able to learn quite a bit about gender, leadership and approach. While we cannot pinpoint one definitive correlation, the patterns are worth taking a deeper dive: by and large, women leaders handling national responses to COVID-19 are seeing better results. Let’s explore why that might be…
First off, it is important to acknowledge that when a country has a female leader, that is a signal of honoring and acceptance of diverse backgrounds. This may be a signal that a country has more inclusive political institutions and values.Thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives are incorporated on how to combat crises — those with diverse perspectives are able to win seats at that table just like their women in leadership.
Let’s take a look at the women leaders successfully handling their approach to the current pandemic:
- Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was able to eradicate COVID-19 by May 15th after less than 2 months of lockdown.
- Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34 years old, of Finland has had less than 10% as many deaths as neighboring country Sweden.
- Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan, was uniquely successful in efforts to test and trace during a planned isolation without full lockdown.
- Angela Merkel, Germany’s leader, has had a lower death rate than most countries in the European Union.
And there is a flip side to every coin:
- Belgium, also headed by a woman, has the grim distinction of having the highest death rate per capita in the E.U. and the second highest in the world.
- Las Vegas’s female mayor told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that it’s time to open her city’s casinos, citing the Ebola epidemic as having prepared casinos for the safe handling of COVID-19.
Clearly some women leaders are handling the crisis better than others. There is no binary here, but we can look at the traits that successful women leaders share and how that can provide insight into women as they continue to fight for seats at the table.
Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, wrote in an opinion piece that, “The only way to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots is to ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are made.”
This can be seen through these leaders’ responses. For example, Germany’s government – thanks to Merkel’s leadership – considered a variety of different information sources in developing its coronavirus policy; epidemiological models, data from medical providers and evidence from South Korea’s successful program of testing and isolation. The results speak for themselves.
By contrast, the male-led governments of Sweden and Britain — both of which have high coronavirus death tolls — relied primarily on epidemiological modeling by their own advisers, with few channels for dissent from outside experts.
We can all hope that one day women in leadership will be so common that women will lead in various styles, ideologies and outcomes. That is true equality and inclusivity, after all. However, for now, there is an important tendency to take note of: countries with female leaders are more likely to have progressive societies with a relatively higher level of trust in the government. Therefore, people are more likely to cooperate with their leaders.
Since women in leadership is still uncommon, current women leaders may be handling the health crisis better than other nations because of social, historical and cultural factors. Women leaders, be they in politics or business, could not have risen to the top without certain leadership qualities that are now serving them well – especially during crises.
There are some analysts and researchers who have looked into risk and its relation to gender. Sources at Emerald were examining risk-taking behavior and found that men are more prone to taking higher risks. The increased risk-taking behavior has contributed to this current crisis, a correlated outcome to male-dominated workplaces that valued individual achievement and competition rather than collective well-being.
Similar research has also found that women have a tendency to have a more relational approach to leadership, an approach that is more effective in a crisis compared to a traditional command-and-control, transactional leadership style normally adopted by men. This relational approach often adopted by women leaders is also defined as a “transformational leadership” style, focused on demonstrating compassion, care, concern, respect and equality.
According to an article in Swaay, women leaders have a handful of shared characteristics that have helped set them apart during their national response.
Women have the burden of deliberateness because they do not get second chances like their male counterparts.
Example: Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been holding special news conferences just for children. This is an action of thoughtful deliberateness.
A key trait often shared by women leaders; surrounds themselves with those who know more about various subject areas, able to actually listen to their expertise.
In times of stress, particularly, people often resort to habitual, biased modes of decision-making. Yet solving complex problems requires considering different points of view so that leaders can make decisions that have positive impacts on the collective.
You can see how the illusion of decisiveness and actual action have distinct effects. In the cases of the U.S. and U.K., almost ironically their leaders play into the male stereotype that they are action-takers, however actual action lagged. Yet with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen once informed, she took action early and decisively to contain the virus.
Being communicative in crisis is key to building trust and sharing important health information. In business, this can result in the “female leadership trust advantage” in which women leaders are able to win more trust in some crisis situations due to their interpersonal skills.
Example: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scientific yet concise explanation of how coronavirus transmission works helped Germans understand why it was so critical to contain the virus as early as possible.
Example: Prime Minister Ardern has remarkably exhibited all the traits of good communication during a crisis by addressing her people clearly, consistently and compassionately.
In business as well as politics, studies show that in crisis situations empathetic and compassionate leaders perform better and inspire more loyalty, engagement and productivity.
Example: Prime Minister Ardern’s “be kind” refrain during the pandemic fueled a spirit of altruism in New Zealand, inspiring many acts of charity.
These traits that we have just highlighted – that are correlated to success and effectiveness in this health crisis – has often created difficulties for women in politics. “There is an expectation that leaders should be aggressive and forward and domineering. But if women demonstrate those traits, then they’re seen as unfeminine,” said Alice Evans, a sociologist at King’s College London. “That makes it very difficult for women to thrive as leaders.”
Clearly there is a disconnect between perception and outcome. Women leaders who are using traits of relational leadership, empathy, humility and collaboration are by and large successful in crisis management while leaders who are playing into dominating male-affiliated stereotypes may ‘seem’ stronger, but are in fact losing when it comes to helping their populous during a crisis. This is a time to re-evaluate how we understand leadership styles, gender roles and actual effectiveness. It is time to identify our blind spots, biases and use this current pandemic to understand what traits, what leaders, we need for a better future.
Adams, R., et al. “Are Female CEOs and Chairwomen More Conservative and Risk Averse? Evidence from the Banking Industry During the Financial Crisis.” Journal of Business Ethics, Springer Netherlands, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-014-2288-3.
Elsesser, Kim. “Are Female Leaders Statistically Better At Handling The Coronavirus Crisis?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2020/04/29/are-female-leaders-statistically-better-at-handling-the-coronavirus-crisis/#2c997fb2539c.
“Opinion: Women Are Better Leaders. The Pandemic Proves It.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 May 2020, edition.cnn.com/2020/05/05/perspectives/women-leaders-coronavirus/index.html.
Smith, Nicole. “6 Leadership Qualities Displayed by Female World Leaders During COVID-19.” Swaay, Swaay, 21 May 2020, www.swaay.com/global-women-leaders-covid-19.
Taub, Amanda. “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-leaders.html.
“Upward Mobility for Women Managers: Styles and Perceptions: Part 1.” Industrial and Commercial Training, www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/00197851311296700/full/html.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Expert, Dr. Amy S. Tolbert, CSP, specializes in helping individuals expand their productivity and organizations increase profitability through virtual and live experiential learning, online courses, leadership development and global business communications.