Might the Pandemic (Finally) Change the Leadership Stereotype?

Posted on Categories Feminism, Public

Does having a woman in charge of a country impact how that country is dealing with the pandemic?   In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, more than one commentator has noticed that it does.  From Forbes to The Atlantic in the U.S., to think tanks around the world, “feminist leadership matters.”

Forbes Magazine wrote just last week that women leaders are saving lives.  In the limited data that is available, researchers have already noted that Jacinda Arderncountries led by women are, thus far, doing better in overall testing rates and in lower mortality rates.  Why might this be so?  One reason could well be how women make decisions, or as I and others have studied, how women are less susceptible to common decision errors including overconfidence, are less likely to take risks, and are more conscientious in their decision making approach.  Women are more likely to consult others before deciding and less likely to go it alone. (I review this and other negotiation skills that women are more likely to have in What’s Sex Got to Do With It?)

In international relations:

we know that gender equal leadership leads to more comprehensive decision-making (read: less deaths?), lower levels of interstate violence (as important now as ever before), and higher levels of collaboration and consensus (crucially important, particularly considering we need community buy-in and collaboration to flatten the curve).

And as years of health data have shown, women’s typical decision making approach already benefits individual women in their health care choices as women are more likely to get medical care and heed medical advice.  Of course, this correlation does not equal causation—it could be that countries that are willing to elect women have other features that assist them in managing the pandemic.  As Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic notes in Forbes Magazine,

For instance, cultures that see leadership as less masculine may not just be more likely to have women in charge, but also more likely to act in empathetic, collectivistic, altruistic, and risk-averse ways, all of which reduce the damage of a contagious virus. When it comes to handling a disease, this is not a trivial or metaphorical matter: the traditional approach to facing illnesses (a stoic, seemingly tough or macho-like attitude conveying a sense of invincibility) is a particular liability in the face of pandemics, especially if you are in charge, and people look up to you to emulate your behaviors. In that sense, the best approach for facing a pandemic may not depend on biological gender (females better than males), but on psychological gender orientation (more femininity, or at least less masculinity, may be preferable).

And this difference between world leaders in their approach to communicating with their citizens is also noteworthy.  In The Atlantic’s profile of Jacinda Ardern (wonderfully titled New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet) scholars compare what leaders say when they lead their people.  In contrast to other (male) leaders, Ardern

“…doesn’t peddle in misinformation; she doesn’t blame-shift; she tries to manage everyone’s expectations at the same time [as] she offers reassuring notes,” Van Jackson, an international-relations scholar at Victoria University of Wellington and a former Defense Department official during the Obama administration, wrote to me in an email. “She uses the bully pulpit to cue society toward our better angels—‘Be kind to each other’ and that kind of thing. I think that’s more important than people realize and does trickle down into local attitudes.”

The difference with our own leadership–and the use of the bully pulpit– is not lost on me.  My article for the Negotiation Journal last year is titled Negotiating from the Bully Pulpit and Trump’s bullying & blustering has only continued during this crisis where women who lead their states do not even get the respect of their title. (Trump called Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer “that woman from Michigan” just last week for having the nerve to disagree with his policies.)

Ironically, having women lead not only helps other women in their countries and states but directly benefits the men too since these decision making advantages result in policies (like quicker lockdown orders) that force everyone to take better care of themselves.  The real question (and one I look forward to researching) is if our society recognizes this in future elections and finally understands that likeability and competence can work together in effective leadership.

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