Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of media attention paid to the link between the gender of leaders and the effectiveness of their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. It seems that women leaders have been some of the most successful.

In her latest interview with the Financial Times, Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank and former chair of the International Monetary Fund hailed the recent performance of women leaders, saying they were better at expressing the “caring dimension” which was especially useful during the current pandemic. Is this empathetic style of leadership the key to performing well under pressure?

From Germany to Taiwan and from Norway to New Zealand women have manage current crisis with aplomb. Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a substantially lower COVID-19 death rate in comparison with neighbouring European countries. Merkel’s transparent and calm leadership means that in her fourth term as chancellor, her public approval rating is now above 70%.

Finland, led by newly-elected Prime Minister Sanna Marin, also took early action through innovative measures including strict quarantine measures and accessible testing facilities appear to have been effective — Finland has recorded only 304 coronavirus deaths, tying it with Norway for the lowest number of “deaths above normal” in an analysis of 14 European countries. Cautious leadership of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has proved successful too. Arden’s handling of the pandemic has resulted in a rise in her approval ratings to a whopping 80 percent.

By contrast, commentators point out, that world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin in Russia, have all had high death rates and are still failing to flatten the curve in their countries.

Professor Kathleen Gersen from New York University argues that women leaders may share some traits that make them particularly well-prepared for crisis like this. She argues that women don’t face the same societal pressure of toxic masculinity as some male leaders do. One theory on the success of female leaders asserts that because women have historically been marginalized, especially in terms of leadership roles, those who rise to power feel are more innovative and adaptable in the face of adversity.  Gersen suggests that because we typically see men in leadership roles, male leaders “sometimes find it difficult to step over those boundaries and act in a different way from the norm”. Gersen breaks down the qualities of a strong leadership, asserting that leaders should be able to show the compatibility of strength and compassion.

Other research  conducted by Professors Garikipati of the University of Liverpool and Professor Kambhampati of the University of Reading, reaffirms that male leaders are less likely to seek expert advice or embrace the information that is at odds with their judgements.  By contrast their research highlights that women are more likely to welcome other viewpoints and appear less constrained by traditional masculine trappings of leadership. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women has argued that women are better trained to deal with situations, like the current pandemic, that are influenced by an avalanche of factors – such as economic, social, health and food security. 

Greater representation of women in decision-making provides broader perspectives on issues and paves the way for the creation of richer solutions, than solutions that are created by more homogeneous groups. It is too soon and would be too simplistic to draw a conclusion than more women leaders could have prevented COVID-19 from really taking hold, however this pandemic has shown the strength and need for a new more versatile type of leadership.