Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a lot of discussion about the role women leaders have played in handling the crisis. Hailed as the voice of reason among the Coronavirus chaos, many women leaders have attracted praise for effective messaging and decisive action. In Europe, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway — nations that are winning favourable notice in the fight against COVID-19 — are all led by women. In Asia, some of the more successful battles with the virus have been in areas where women have been in charge. They include Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as the small Indian state of Kerala where a woman holds the health portfolio.
Taking a look at these countries responses to the pandemic shows how excellent they have fared in tackling the situation-
Sanna Marin, 34, is one of the youngest prime ministers in the world and she took office only 6 months ago, around the time the virus emerged in China. Following a strict lockdown from March 18 onwards, Finland has managed to contain the outbreak, recording fewer than 7,000 cases. the country reopened on June 1, with restaurants, theatres, bars, cinemas, and crowds up to 50 allowed. Even schools and universities resumed classes.
Angela Merkel, a scientist herself, didn’t mince words early on during the outbreak when she warned that up to 70% of Germans could get infected. Merkel looked at information sources outside of her government for determining its response, including South Korea’s strategy. This is in contrast to male leaders in countries such as the UK (where the toll is much higher), who listened mainly to their advisers.
Katrin Jakobsdottir’s rapid response to Covid-19 has been instrumental in Iceland recording the lowest death rate in Europe. The country has tested more people (including those with no symptoms) per capita than any nation. Iceland joined hands with deCODE genetics, a biopharma firm, to begin Covid-19 testing as early as March. This aggressive testing and tracing practices allowed the country to avoid strict lockdowns and was opened to tourists on June 15.
Denmark was one of the earliest to lockdown. Though it has a relatively higher count of coronavirus deaths, the country’s left-leaning PM Mette Frederiksen has been praised for acting decisively to control the outbreak. As a result, the country of 6 million has largely returned to pre-Covid-19 status, with restaurants and hairdressers and other places with large gatherings now back in business. Denmark has also rolled out universal testing, which is key to fighting the second wave of cases.
From the outset, New Zealand was determined to wipe out the virus altogether. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a motto of “Go hard and go early”. She put the country under an aggressive lockdown as soon as about 100 people tested positive. Daily new infections plunged in April to single digits, from a peak of 89, and Ardern has allowed businesses and schools to reopen. The duration of lockdown has been much shorter than other countries’ in the Pacific.
The country of 24 million has recorded just 441 cases and 7 deaths, despite the island’s proximity to the virus epicentre Wuhan. Using the experience of vice president and former health minister Chen Chien-Jen, a Johns Hopkins University-trained epidemiologist, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration was able to overcome the pandemic without a full lockdown. Besides beginning testing on Dec 31, 2019, Taiwan led the way in diligent contact tracing and medical checks. When passengers arrived in Taiwan in March-April, they had to hand over phones to authorities for recording details. The phones’ GPS signals were used to track the arrivals’ location and make sure they stayed put in quarantine. Police would turn up if the phone stopped transmitting the GPS signal. The country also sought outpatients with respiratory symptoms and tested them for Covid-19.
On the surface, it’s tempting to conclude that women are indeed faring better in the crisis, because of their gender. That line of thinking is simplistic and flawed. The success of these women leaders during such a challenging time has led to comparisons with many male leaders and ignited a wider discussion around male vs female leadership styles.
For one, it doesn’t take into account an obvious caveat — not all women leaders are faring quite as well. For example, Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès, has had one of the worst outbreaks in Europe in terms of deaths per capita with 9,212 deaths among its 11.5 million residents. Then, closer home there is Bangladesh, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, where the government is arresting citizens, doctors, and students for criticizing its lacklustre response to the pandemic. This even as it registers thousands of new cases every day, with more than 400 people dead. And secondly, there are also many countries with male leaders, such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Greece, which have also succeeded in keeping infection rates down.
Regardless of the possible reasons, rather than get mired in a debate over whether women are intrinsically better leaders or not, it may be more productive to look at the qualities these female leaders in government are displaying and consider which are essential for crisis leadership and also how gender parity and inclusive society are crucial for better policy decisions.
The challenges of the 21st-century call for a new type of leadership, different from that based on command and control. These challenges include climate change, health, the environment, the depletion of the Earth’s resources, the aging population and the shortage of talent, the virtual management of production and employee contributions, and the development of new technologies. This new type of leadership primarily involves resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, caring, and recognition of collective contribution. The participation of everyone’s intelligence becomes the key to success. These are all characteristics of traditionally feminine management. The actions of female leaders in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand are cited as supporting evidence that women are managing the crisis better than their male counterparts. Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid, and humility are mentioned as common features of the success of these women leaders. To overcome the obstacles of the 21st century and to be successful, organizations and countries must, therefore, diversify their sources of talent as much as possible, giving priority to gender.
Let’s broaden our perspective. What if countries led by women are managing the pandemic more effectively not because they are women, but because the election of women is a reflection of societies where there is a greater presence of women in many positions of power, in all sectors? Greater involvement of women results in a broader perspective on the crisis and paves the way for the deployment of richer and more complete solutions than if they had been imagined by a homogeneous group. Only about 21% of cabinet ministers around the world are women, as per the World Economic Forum. Experts such as Devi Sridhar of the University of Edinburgh say that diversity in leadership positions in countries will lead to better policy outcomes. It should also be noted that women bear the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. They constitute 70% of global medical workers and also face an increased burden in caring for family members during the lockdown.
Gender parity is measured in terms of the participation of men and women in society and the opportunities available to each gender in terms of access to health, education, and employment, among others. The forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks countries in terms of their gender equality performance. Those that have fought the pandemic most effectively and are led by women rank high on the list.
Are countries with greater gender parity managed differently? We observe that in these ecosystems, leadership is driven by supposed “feminine qualities” – empathy, compassion, listening, and collaboration. These are distinct from the characteristics associated with the exercise of traditional managerial, supervisory, and controlling power. It should be noted, however, that these different gender-based attributes are more reflective of the perceptions, stereotypes, and biases that characterize our societies. Women can display supposedly male management traits and vice versa. That means gender-balanced environments produce more robust decisions. These environments also represent leadership where female-like values dominate.
Perhaps COVID-19 has shown the world what should have been obvious all along: The qualities that make women excellent caregivers are also what make them great leaders. “I don’t see any contradiction in being empathetic and compassionate and being a strong leader. That’s not a weakness. That’s strength,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She knows a thing or two about leading through a crisis, as she navigated Liberia through the Ebola virus outbreak of 2014. It feels fitting to conclude with her words, “The power of women has not yet been fully tested or tapped. We need to build towards using it more often.”