There is no playbook for how to lead during crisis. It is only retrospectively that we can see clearly which decisions were right and which actions, or inactions, were wrong.
As the world has watched the coronavirus twisting and warping its way around the globe, the outcome of such choices has become painfully evident. While countries like the UK and US have failed to contain the virus, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, the death toll in New Zealand has remained under 30 people.
From New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one group of leaders seem to have got their decisions right: women.
This has now been backed up by research. “Covid outcomes are systematically better in countries led by women”, confirms a study published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum.
“Women were risk-averse as far as lives were concerned, but actually, female leaders took a lot of risks and more risks than their male counterparts regarding the economy.”
The analysis of 194 countries revealed that in the first three months of the pandemic, female leaders performed better on two significant counts: a lower number of positive Covid-19 cases and a lower number of Covid-19 related deaths.
One possible reason for these different outcomes in male and female led nations is the “proactive and coordinated policy responses” adopted by female leaders. According to their analysis, they acted “quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities”, and “in almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances”.
As well as locking down faster, women took other precautionary measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as testing more rigorously for the virus. According to the Financial Times, in June, the average number of tests carried out per confirmed case was 244 in female-led countries, whereas in male-led countries it was 155.
“In the literature, it seems to be the case that they talk about women being risk-averse, but actually what we find in this is the domain of the risk matters a lot,” explains Professor Uma Kambhampati, one of the authors of the paper. “Yes, women were risk-averse as far as lives were concerned, but actually, female leaders took a lot of risks and more risks than their male counterparts regarding the economy.”
On the contrary, male leaders were often slow to act. Many put off locking down the country until cases had already skyrocketed, as they feared what a nationwide lockdown would do to the economy.
Another reason that female leaders might have done better than their male counterparts is their leadership style. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-First, a global consulting firm that supports businesses in enhancing gender diversity, puts it in Forbes, women display, “a leaning towards empathy, whether that be by holding press conferences for children or prioritising testing for healthcare’s front-liners”.
“In June, the average number of tests carried out per confirmed case was 244 in female-led countries, whereas in male-led countries it was 155.”
Throughout the pandemic, female leaders have gone above and beyond to make the whole of society feel included and understood. In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a special news conference for children to help understand the pandemic, answering questions such as “can I have a birthday party?” and “what can I do to help?”
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attempted to brighten the mood in a press conference, confirming that both the “Tooth Fairy and Easter bunny are essential workers”, as well as encouraging children to create an easter egg hunt in their neighbourhoods.
“What I found very interesting is these women were much more ready and comfortable expressing love and care while leading,” remarks Wittenberg-Cox. “They make it very explicit that they care for everybody; they don’t keep anyone out.”
Wittenberg-Cox points to Jacinda Ardern as demonstrating exemplary compassionate leadership. At the start of the pandemic, she hosted an informal Facebook Live Q&A to “check in with everyone”. Addressing the nation from her home in sweats, Ardern says “excuse the casual attire,” explaining, “it can be a messy business putting toddlers to bed.”
This kind of openness breaks the usual barriers that usually exist between citizens and people in power, “revealing their personal and professional realities without shame,” says Wittenberg-Cox.
The ability to connect with individuals on a human level is integral to a unified response to crisis – both in motivating citizens and rallying policy-makers. “Women — or more specifically, individuals with strong female leadership traits — tend to be more relational in their decision-making,” found psychologist Carol Gilligan. “Relational decision-makers build relationships that are inclusive. They invite others in, they expand their connections and they diversify their perspectives.” This means that policy becomes participative rather than autocratic, drawing people in rather than keeping people out.
“To take on future challenges, we need a multi-dimensional style of leadership, one that harnesses the power of everyone.”
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” As articulated by the UNDP, “Women must have the opportunity to play a full role in shaping the pivotal decisions being made right now as countries respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic – choices that will affect the wellbeing of people and the planet for generations to come.”
As we face the pressing issues of the 21st century – poverty, climate change, the depletion of global resources, health crises, social inequality – we can only do so by inviting people in, uniting rather than dividing, diversifying thinking and maximising collective action. To take on future challenges, we need a multi-dimensional style of leadership, one that harnesses the power of everyone.
Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa Credit: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Live News