2020 has been full of uncertainty, crisis, and of course, quarantine. Almost a year has passed since we are dealing with the ‘new normal,’ now it’s finally time to look at how countries have handled the coronavirus pandemic.
With the rapid escalation of COVID-19 across the world, political leadership has been under enormous pressure to tackle the pandemic. Studies found that out of 194 countries, women-led states’ performance was more effective in their fight against the virus than their male counterparts. Reports from The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and The Guardian have all highlighted the success of women’s leadership in lowering the number of deaths and limiting the number of coronavirus cases. At a national level, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Tsai Ing-Wen from Taiwan, and Angela Merkel in Germany have been role models to curb the virus since the start of the pandemic. At the local level, KK Shailaja, the health minister of the state of Kerala, has played a critical role in reducing the fatality rate in a population of 35 million. Not to forget the role of all the female healthcare workers who make up for most nurses and caretakers across the globe- managing their household and childcare responsibilities.
Although only 7% of women hold the highest government position, the world is showering praises for their quick, skilful navigation against the virus.
NETRI is drawing out 3 significant lessons that all of us can learn from women’s leadership amidst the global pandemic:
While analyzing the differences in performance, one of the factors that helped women-led nations to tackle COVID-19 was imposing early lockdown measures. As suggested by Scroll. in, “female-led countries like New Zealand and Germany locked down much more quickly and decisively than male-led ones like the UK. On average, they had 22 deaths fewer at lockdown when compared to their male counterparts”. Scholarly work on attitudes to risk and uncertainty also suggests that women in leadership appear to be more risk-averse than men. Risky behaviour of some male leaders has been noticed in several incidents. For instance- Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as “the little flu or a bit of a cold” when he attended an anti-lockdown protest in April.
Similarly, Britain’s Boris Johnson is reported to have said, “I was at a hospital where there were a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody.” However, while women leaders were risk-averse about lives, they were prepared to take significant risks with their economies by locking down early. Thus, risk aversion may manifest differently in different domains – human life versus economic outcomes – with women leaders being significantly more risk-averse in the domain of human life but more risk-taking in the economy domain. Relatively late lockdown decisions by male leaders may reflect male risk aversion to anticipated losses from locking down the economy. Professor Kanter believes that “women don’t have a monopoly on these skills, but they might be less likely to let their egos get in the way or play politics with the crisis.”
Another difference that can be found in response to the pandemic is seen in the leadership styles of men and women. Women tend to adopt a more conscious building, caring, open, and inclusive approach. The transformation style of leadership used by women helps them map out the need for change, build a vision, and collectively work towards the goal. Studies suggest that men are likely to lead in a “task-oriented” style and women in an “interpersonally-oriented” manner. Women’s leadership results in a more democratic and participative environment with a better communications strategy.
Examples of clear and decisive communication styles implemented during the pandemic by several women leaders, whether it be Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg speaking directly to children or Ardern checking in with her citizens through Facebook, shows a greater capacity for empathy within politics. The early lockdown measures, combined with her informative yet informal Facebook Live chats, has helped New Zealand on its way to eradicating coronavirus. Thus, strategic and effective communication and the thought of putting people first- strengthened the leadership skills of female-led nations, further resulting in a transformative approach towards politics in general.
The consequences of the coronavirus go beyond fatality rates and the rapid spread of cases. As the world has come under a lockdown, millions of people have become unemployed, the education of students has been affected, there is a severe need for attention towards our physical and mental well-being, and the government is facing increased demands to provide emergency relief for its citizens. Previous research on women’s leadership explains that women politicians are more likely to prioritize social policies like welfare, health care, and childcare. This is evident during the management of the pandemic. Women leaders introduced targeted measures and early medical check-up while the pandemic was still surfacing. Taking the focus away from economic growth, women leaders became the catalyst for mental-health policies and social equity.
The experiences of women’s political leadership have taught us that it is crucial to ensure that women are given ministerial positions to influence the country’s development. “The power of women has not yet been fully tested or tapped,” said Sirleaf, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. “We need to build towards using it more often.” Using these examples as case studies of exceptional leadership, more women must come forward and claim the highest political office, which would help us all now more than ever.
Team Member, NETRI Foundation
Image credit- Wisconsin School of Business- Blog by Alexander Stajkovic