Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Amongst the chaos of press coverage of COVID-19 – misinformation, a lack of honest facts and fear-mongering – one line of argument stands out. A distinct preoccupation with contrasting female and male leaders’ handling of the crisis.  

As we watch COVID-19 ripple across the world, undoubtedly, this is the biggest test most of these leaders will ever face. The mainstream media is keen to argue that many of the countries’ leading the world in stopping the spread of the virus, are led by women. This is not a fact I am trying to denigrate.

Successful women leaders include New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and her clear policies and communicative Facebook lives, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir offering free COVID-19 testing, Denmark’s and Germany’s decisive early action or Norway’s Erna Solberg, holding press conferences for children.

Yet, one outshines them all – Tsai Ing-wen. Despite Taiwan’s proximity to China, it has reported only 7 deaths. A remarkable feat rooted in her early measures and science-based approach, involving immediate travel restrictions and mass public hygiene controls. The depth of her success now apparent as full lockdown was never necessary, and Taiwan is dispatching facemasks to help the rest of the world.

What these women have showed is that strong and decisive leadership alongside critical action, is key in a time of calamity. This is not a gender matter. With only 7% of world leaders being women, and Angela Merkel standing alone within the G20, is it fair to make a judgment based on such a small minority? It is not fair to pursue this line of argument at all.

In the rush to respond to these trends, experts and studies have flourished across pages of newspapers. They claim the reasons behind many female leaders’ success include offering more collaborative, data-driven, risk-averse and pragmatic leadership. Yet often the claims veer further into essentialised or typically “female” qualities of seeming more empathetic, calming and trusting.

Many men have done well too, Australia, South Korea and Vietnam to name a few. But many men are also failing – which has led to the newer question; are female leaders doing it right, or are men failing us? This is a virus, a pandemic, a killer. Trump cannot dismiss or form a tirade against it on twitter or Bolsonaro cannot continue to downplay it as death tolls soar in Brazil. It’s a blatant call for better leadership. 

Yet, neither arguments are truly helpful to female leaders, or to anyone.

I ask, why is the media desperately searching for reasons of why this trend has occurred? Why is the media reducing female leaders’ successes to qualities attributed to their gender? Arguing that the spread of the virus was stopped in Norway and New Zealand because of Solberg and Ardern’s empathy and caring nature seems like a loose claim to make. Yet, it is being made.

Is it purely empathy and care that they are showing? Or are they also showing a more reasoned, qualified and decisive decision-making leadership style, irrespective of their gender. They have all, individually, handled the challenges facing them. It is truly a matter of leadership style, not of gender.

To claim they are doing well, because they are female, is reductive, divisive and unhelpful. If anything, it overlooks them as individuals and dismisses their power. They are not simply a member of a gender, nor do they speak for all women, their handling of the crisis speaks for themselves.

Instead, we should stop this fetishism of asking “why” they have done well, and instead ask “how”, so we can all do better.