Women in charge: Female leaders in times of crisis

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

Not to state the obvious, but the world is currently dealing with some bad times. If you haven’t looked outside in the last few weeks, don’t. It’s not good. Stay in bed with a nice hot Milo. If you have unfortunately seen the state of the world, you know that countries everywhere are dealing with a shocking and disruptive global pandemic, COVID-19. Unlike Flu, Ebola, SARS, and Zika, COVID-19 is much more infectious, and has spread much further. Almost every country in the world is being forced to take drastic steps to contain the virus. However, many of the countries that have responded most effectively to the virus seem to have one thing in common, they are led by women.

Here in New Zealand, our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has earned global praise for her handling of the pandemic. Swift action based on scientific advice led us to stop all tourism to New Zealand and lock the country down before the first death was reported. Only essential businesses like supermarkets, petrol stations, and pharmacies remained open and everyone was asked to stay home. We are currently past the peak and are already seeing our active cases going down with a fatality rate of 0.01% of all closed cases, far below the global rate of 21%.[1]

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has been lauded for her swift, decisive action, taking precautionary measures even before they reported their first case on January 21st, 2020. Their proximity to mainland China may have played a part in their quick response, however, they acted long before any of China’s other neighbours. On December 31st, 2019, they were the first to warn the World Health Organization (WHO) of the potential for human-to-human transmission and they implemented inspection measures for inbound flights from Wuhan, China. The WHO continued to deny this potential based on China’s reports until January 21st, 2020.[2] Those extra weeks of precautions have saved many lives in Taiwan, while being inactive in those weeks has led to loss of life around the world. Their leaders have taken 124 discrete steps to prevent the spread including travel bans, quarantines, surveillance, and social distancing.[3] These steps have prevented the need for a full lockdown and their businesses have mostly been able to remain open throughout the pandemic.

Of course, New Zealand and Taiwan are islands which can shut down travel primarily by stopping flights. Stopping the spread of the virus in landlocked countries accustomed to porous borders, logically would be much more difficult. This is what we have seen in mainland Europe where Spain, Italy, France, and Germany are all in the top 5 of highest reported cases of COVID-19, behind the USA. While all these countries have seen rampant spread of the virus, Germany’s response, led by Angela Merkel, appears to have been the most effective so far. Looking solely at the statistics, Germany’s fatality rate is currently 58 casualties per 1 million people. The average of the three other nations in similar positions (large populations, large land area, large number of cases, in mainland Europe) is 373.67 casualties per 1 million people. Germany’s rate of fatality is therefore 14.18% of the average.[4]

This has been attributed largely to Germany’s decisive action of early and aggressive testing and tracking of anyone with symptoms. And when this testing was called for, the infrastructure necessary to do so was already in place. Germany has Europe’s best pharmaceutical industry which was well situated to handle the massive influx of testing ordered by the state.[5] Spain, Italy, and France on the other hand did not have such infrastructure, nor did they respond as decisively. Further, I would be remiss if I did not point out that none of these countries have ever elected a female leader.

The Nordic countries are seemingly an anomaly in world politics where four out of five countries in a relatively small area all have female leaders; Iceland (Katrín Jakobsdóttir), Finland (Sanna Marin), Norway (Erna Solberg), and Denmark (Mette Frederiksen), with Sweden being the only male-led country (who has also never elected a female Prime Minister). Looking at the fatality statistics, all four female led countries have an average of 33 casualties per 1 million people, whereas Sweden has 150 casualties per 1 million population. So, the average fatality rate of the four female-led countries is 22% of Sweden’s.

While the female-led countries acted swiftly, for the most part, to implement lockdowns and travel bans (Finland was delayed in their implementation though followed closely behind), Sweden tried to keep life as normal while only advising the public to practice social distancing measures.[6] Their reasoning behind this was that “a long-term lockdown is also likely to have major economic implications that in the future may harm healthcare due to lack of resources”.[7] This is a theme that has appeared around the world, including in Sweden, the UK, the USA, France, and Italy, with many male leaders choosing to sacrifice public health for the false hope of keeping the economy going. Every time a government has chosen to not lock down or implement strict measures to fight the virus, they have only delayed having to do so., This has led  to many unnecessary civilian deaths, as well as an overall worse economic impact as affected countries have been required to lock down for longer in order to undo the damage caused from their inaction.

I will add a caveat here that not all female-led countries have had such great results, for example, Belgium (led by their first ever female Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, who came into office on March 16th, 2020) has the highest death rate in Europe (apart from San Marino).[8] However, Belgium has had an especially long history of dysfunctional administrations which may have led to institutional problems including poor pandemic policy. That being said, while the outcome appears to have been devastating, there have been reports that the current administration’s response has been decisive and effective.[9] Therefore, the true effectiveness of their response won’t be known until the pandemic has passed and we have the benefit of hindsight.

A 2018 Science Direct study says that when women are in leadership positions, the lives and livelihoods of citizens are more likely to be prioritised over short-sighted attempts to boost the economy.[10]  This increase in citizen care spans higher investment in health and education to awareness of sexism and other inequalities, for example supporting pay equity and victims of gender-based violence. A 2016 Hay Group study also finds that women in power have higher emotional intelligence which leads to increased professionalism, collaboration, critical thinking, and better communication.[11] Increased sensitivity to public health, safety, and education, being able to think more critically, and communicate more compassionately and effectively are exactly the qualities that are best suited to handle this type of crisis, and essentially all crises.

In watching our female leaders, we can see all these qualities playing out before our eyes. We see them humbly refer to the experts for advice, rather than asserting knowledge in a field in which they are not experts. We see them showing compassion for their people, not abandoning them to “herd immunity” or berating them for questioning uncaring state policy. We see them emphasizing working together for those around us, not shifting the blame,[12] or giving in to selfish desires for life to continue as normal. They are the beacons that are lighting our way through this crisis, they are the daily faces which calm us and give us hope, and they have earned our trust in their policies.

Of course, being a woman does not automatically give you the qualities which make a great leader. Decisiveness, compassion, humility, and composure can equally be expressed by men in leadership. However, this global crisis is a painful insight into the way society expects different characteristics from men versus women. Compassion, for example, is often seen as more feminine, while men may be expected to take more risks.[13] What this pandemic is showing us, is that these supposedly “feminine”, and therefore inferior, characteristics are utterly necessary to a great leader, whether male or female.  If we have more strong female role models displaying these traits in our governments and media, and we eradicate the misogyny that discourages young boys and men from emulating women, male and female leaders of the future can all demonstrate the qualities needed to lead a nation. But to get there, we need to vote for more women displaying these qualities in leadership and encourage our young boys and girls to follow in their footsteps.


[1] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[2] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/covid-19-no-new-case-in-taiwan-as-strategy-bears-fruit/1804256

[3] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/3/10/21171722/taiwan-coronavirus-china-social-distancing-quarantine

[4] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[5] https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21223915/coronavirus-germany-france-cases-death-rate

[6] https://nordics.info/show/artikel/the-nordic-countries-react-differently-to-the-covid-19-crisis/

[7] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/sweden-under-fire-for-relaxed-coronavirus-approach-here-s-the-science-behind-it/

[8] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/belgium/

[9] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/failed-state-managed-coronavirus-outbreak-200413152555554.html

[10] https://theconversation.com/the-more-women-in-government-the-healthier-a-population-107075

[11] https://www.inc.com/shama-hyder/the-hidden-advantage-of-women-in-leadership.html

[12] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52289056

[13] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/09/20/2-views-on-leadership-traits-and-competencies-and-how-they-intersect-with-gender/


Image from Wikipedia Commons

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