Throughout 2020, newspapers and media outlets were regularly sharing stories about how countries run by women were faring better than those run by men. In the UK, this was often in comparison to the way our predominantly male politicians were handling the pandemic.
As restrictions worsened in the UK, we looked at Jacinda Arden leading in New Zealand and understandably, may have wished we were there. The grass most certainly looked greener on the other side of the world. In October, NBC news reported that:
Ardern, 40, stands almost alone as having all but eradicated community transmission of Covid-19. While the coronavirus rages elsewhere, New Zealand has become something of a parallel universe where lockdowns, masks, and social distancing are no longer necessary.”
There has been official research done on the gender differences in managing COVID-19, notably by Supriya Garikipati (University of Liverpool) and Uma Kambhampati (University of Reading). In their paper titled ‘Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?’, they conclude that COVID-outcomes are systematically better in countries led by women, and to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses adopted by them.
But why is this the case?
Of course there are well known qualities, commonly associated with women, that are useful for leaders to have in a crisis. For example, women are often described as being more compassionate, empathetic, resilient, and pragmatic than men – all of which are undoubtedly helpful qualities to have when dealing with an unexpected pandemic.
These are all valid reasons why women tend to respond well in moments of crisis. However, it is important to acknowledge this as a general trend rather than adopting a stereotypical view that all female leaders will behave in this way.
A simple fact to note is that if a woman is leading a country, or a business for that matter, then the senior leadership team is automatically not made up of men alone (there is at least one woman). The more equitable the senior leadership team – the more wide-reaching their response can be to a crisis! A diverse crisis management team offers wider perspective and more innovative solutions to any event, as well as to the grave problems that COVID has presented to countries around the world.
It’s important to note that not all women will identify with the stereotypical characteristics mentioned above, and many men will feel that they do and vice versa. This is all the more reason to prioritize having a diverse group of people of all genders and backgrounds involved in running a business or country.
Supriya and Uma’s research also found that women tended to be more risk averse in their leadership styles. They also reported that women prioritized differently and that “women leaders prioritized human lives over economic outcomes.”
We can certainly see the success of this principle in New Zealand where there have been a total of 2,295 cases since the beginning of the pandemic last March. This is stark in contrast to the total number of cases in the UK, which has now surpassed 3.69 million. Of course, this has led to better economic outcomes as businesses have been able to return to a new ‘business as normal’ quickly.
Women at the top are making a great account of themselves and helping to lift up other women and less represented groups with them. However, despite the triumphant successes of women leaders throughout the pandemic across the globe, there remains to be obstacles for women aspiring to be leaders in business or politics. A recent report reporting on perceptions of equality in leadership found that women, in general, are still not seen as being as suitable for leadership roles as men.
The report, from Kantar, uses large samples from G7 countries around the globe and found that, “women spent twice as much time as men home schooling children. Women are also over-represented in jobs in sectors that have been most badly affected by the lockdown such as hospitality and retail.” This clearly prohibits their ability to take on leading roles during the pandemic.
It is striking how much perception does inform our reality, and so these struggles remain real for women. There is still a way to go in terms of gender equality in business, but I am optimistic and inspired by having so many incredible female role models leading countries and businesses all over the world!
If every cloud, including that of the pandemic, can have a silver lining, then let’s remain hopeful that the focus on the exceptional performance by female leaders across the globe can be one of them.