18 Aug Are Women-Led Nations Handling COVID-19 Better Than Their Male Counterparts?
‘Coronavirus tracked: How women leaders outperform men during the pandemic’ The Independent reported at the end of July. This followed on from articles such as ‘Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19?’ in the New York Times and ‘What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders’ in Forbes. And now a research paper, conducted by two economists at UK universities, suggests this widely noticed trend may have some truth to it.
Indeed, female leaders around the world have won praise for their handling of the crisis. At the top of many people’s prime minister wishlist right now is Jacinda Ardern. The 39-year-old’s ability to ace any task, as well as her bed-time live streams to the nation, has helped New Zealand lead one of the world’s best responses to the virus. Angela Merkel’s dealing of Covid-19 has won her high approval ratings and her off-the-cuff explanations of epidemiological concepts have been a joy. Finland, where Prime minister Sanna Marin, 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10% as many deaths as nearby Sweden. And Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown.
Many of these reports, however, seemed to simply be anecdotal until the research paper was released. The analysis found that both the infection rate and death rate of Covid-19 were lower in countries run by women compared to those run by men. In an effort to isolate the specific effect of having a female leader, they compared female-led countries to male-led countries that are similar in population, geography, gender equality, health expenditures, and number of tourists. No matter how they sliced the data, female-led countries fared better.
Though the paper is compelling, it doesn’t offer incontrovertible proof. Part of the reason it’s so hard to say for sure is because there are so few women leaders. Of 194 countries included in the researchers’ analysis, just 19 of them (about 10%) are run by women. Ultimately, researchers can’t overcome the fundamental problems caused by the small sample size and we should resist drawing conclusions about women leaders from a few exceptional individuals. What’s more, experts think that many countries are miscounting or misrepresenting the number of people within their borders affected by the virus.
But the findings do offer valuable lessons and encourage us to broaden our perspective. The researchers found that women seem to be more risk-averse and possibly feel more empathy. While male leaders seem to feel the need to appear “super-masculine and super-strong and inflexible in the face of the pandemic”, Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor who studies women leaders, told Vox. Women, on the other hand, may feel less of a need to live up to expectations of crisis management that are grounded in traditional — even toxic — masculinity. Women leaders may be more able to say things like, “This is a time that we need to come together, and we need to take care of one another.”
But probably the most interesting factor was that having a female leader is a signal that people of diverse backgrounds — and thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives on how to combat crises — are able to win seats at that table. And that’s crucial for a successful pandemic response.
Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, wrote in an op-ed in the British Medical Journal. “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,” she wrote. Greater involvement of women in positions of power results in a broader perspective on the crisis, and paves the way for richer and more complete solutions than if they had been developed by a homogeneous group.
In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel’s government considered a variety of different information sources in developing its coronavirus policy, including epidemiological models; data from medical providers; and evidence from South Korea’s successful program of testing and isolation. As a result, the country has achieved a coronavirus death rate that is dramatically lower than those of other Western European countries.
That style of leadership may become increasingly important. With the threats of climate change escalating, there will likely be more crises arising out of extreme weather and other natural disasters. Hurricanes and forest fires cannot be intimidated into surrender any more than the virus can. And neither can climate change itself. Maybe the world is learning that a different kind of leader can be very beneficial – one that is risk averse, caring and thoughtful.
At the same time, experts caution that women leaders, like women voters, aren’t a monolith. Some female heads of state, like Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. And making the generalization that women are always better at handling crises like the coronavirus runs the risk of setting a trap for female leaders — they’re expected to perform better than men, so when they do well, it’s just business as usual. And when they do run into trouble, whether it’s with the pandemic or some other challenge then the criticism of them might be greater because the expectation set is that they’re supposed to be better than men.
For Jalalzai, the attention on how women leaders are handling the coronavirus is a good thing. At the most basic level, “People are now more aware of women leaders across the globe than they have been perhaps before.” And overall, she sees more conversation around women in power. “We’re at this point where we question the status quo and we question politics as usual, and we are aware of how gender presents obstacles and are not okay with that anymore,” Jalalzai said.
Maybe the main two lessons from all this is that diverse representation is best for balanced decision making and that it’s probably a good idea the number of female leaders increases, especially considering the complicated threats on our horizon.