When COVID-19 first seized the globe in March 2020, world leaders found themselves confronted with a previously unknown threat. Within the initial months, those in charge made rapid decisions and as a result, their country either flourished or floundered.
However, as political leaders learned to navigate through this unchartered territory, it became increasingly clear that countries with the lowest transmission and death rates all had something in common: they had women calling the shots.
From President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, to Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg, Finland’s Sanna Marin and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, these female-led nations have continued to demonstrate to the world that when it comes to a crisis, they know what they’re doing.
From offering tangible support and containing the virus through extensive testing to contact tracing and isolation measures, their tactics have ensured the safety and health of their citizens.
“As a world-level issue, I think that women leaders bring something alternative to these structures,” – Alison Pullen
A research paper published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum analysed 194 countries in August found that those led by women had “systematically and significantly better” COVID-19 outcomes.
Supriya Garikipati, a developmental economist at Liverpool University who was involved in the study, says the results “clearly indicate that women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities”.
Women do it better
So why have the female political leaders dealt with coronavirus better than men? Alison Pullen, Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Macquarie University and Joint Editor of bimonthly academic journal Gender, Work and Organisation, believes the answer may in fact lie in these women’s refusal to fit into the more traditional parameters of what constitutes a leader.
“To have care for the population, a care for the people you represent, seems to be a marker of what sets these women leaders apart from other leaders,” Alison tells The CEO Magazine.
“If you look at the US or Brazil, which have had high transmission and death rates, they have male leaders who are reinforcing the traditional value of what a leader is – independent, aggressive and irrational.”
Despite its small size and relative geographical isolation, throughout COVID-19 New Zealand has been lauded as an exemplary how-to tale of tackling a crisis. Across the world, newspapers including The Washington Post, The Guardian and Business Insider have sung the praises of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, heralding her as the type of leader more countries need.
In June, Time magazine noted that “her style of leadership, which emphasises authenticity, the importance of trust, and the priority of the common good, seems to have been well-suited to the pandemic”.
Jacinda Ardern: A new leadership style
In an article published in The New York Times on 15 May, Dr Alice Evans, a sociologist at King’s College London, posited that as the world prepares for future catastrophes, a more empathic leadership style could be the way forward.
“What we learned with COVID-19 is that, actually, a different kind of leader can be very beneficial. Perhaps people will learn to recognise and value risk-averse, caring and thoughtful leaders.”
Indeed, Alison agrees, citing Jacinda Ardern as a stellar example of a female leader not bowing to the outdated expectations of what a leader should be or do. “Those traditional attributes that we associate with feminine styles of leadership – care, empathy, compassion, and that ability to connect and relate, we see being associated with Jacinda,” Alison explains.
“It’s her care for the death toll, care for the ways in which the community is responding which have set her apart. She’s worked on her own terms, embraced being a more feminine leader, and has been uncompromising on that from the start.”
When Jacinda first announced the nationwide lockdown on March 25, she did so via a Facebook Live session conducted at her home. She spoke gently and sympathetically, taking into consideration citizens’ concerns and offering an apology for the emergency lockdown alert that had been sent out.
Of the notification, and her decision to speak candidly and casually to the population, Ardern says, “There’s no way to send out those emergency civil alerts on your phones with anything other than the loud honk that you heard. That was actually something we all discussed: was there a way that we could send that message that wasn’t so alarming?”
Alison explains that unfortunately, centuries of engrained stereotypes and misogyny have meant that while women leaders are judged in comparison to men, the same doesn’t apply in reverse.
Rather, when men enact these feminine leadership values and behaviours, they’re seen as “exceptional, as having it all, whereas women performing more masculine leadership roles, are criticised as not being feminine enough! It’s a double standard.
“[Jacinda has] worked on her own terms, embraced being a more feminine leader, and has been uncompromising on that from the start.” – Alison Pullen
“Margaret Thatcher is a great example of this, because she was associated with being impersonal and cold, and putting policy before people – as soon as she enacted masculine traits, she came under critique.”
In addition, Alison emphasises that in order to break down these redundant stereotypes, we as a society need to stop perpetuating the idea of “women as the other to the white, older male by which everyone else is judged”.
“We need to actually think about women and their behaviours, practices and leadership capabilities in their own terms, and stop comparing them to male leaders, because then they’re seen as subordinate” Alison says. “It’s about saying, ‘What do these individuals bring that is distinctive from other people?’
“When we see Jacinda Ardern excelling in her leadership of COVID-19, we don’t see it as Jacinda being excellent because she’s a woman; rather that she is doing an excellent job and happens to be a woman.”
Headed for change
Alison argues that the same should be said for women in the corporate sphere – that there needs to be a conscious push and systemic change to ensure more women can continue smashing glass ceilings.
“In relation to corporate Australia, we need women leaders because we represent half the population,” she says. “So, we need our organisations to reflect the society we’re in. And that is why we need diversity of women too.
“We need to be holding men in positions of power to account for making this happen, and to address the structural and cultural barriers that make it impossible for some women. We need to be asking, ‘How can we help support all women so that if they desire, that they can reach the top echelons of Australian organisations?’”
Going forward, the answer is obvious. If more companies stopped trying to make women behave more like men in order to step into leadership positions and instead encouraged women (and men too!) to embrace feminine values, more workplaces and as a result, our society as a whole, would benefit in myriad ways.
“As a privileged white woman looking out through the window and seeing a planet that’s in crisis on so many levels, there are so many parts of the globe where there continues to be such lack of humanity and violence towards other human beings,” Alison says. “So as a world-level issue, I think that women leaders bring something alternative to these structures.”
Now, perhaps more so than ever before, this period of extreme uncertainty and unrest is the time for female leaders to take the reins.