What you need in a crisis: a woman in charge

The few: There are 195 countries in the world – but only 29 female leaders.

In a crisis, is a woman leader more effective? It is certainly one of the most striking factors that seems to be shared by the countries that are responding best to the coronavirus pandemic.

While countries such as the UK and the US have struggled to test enough of their citizens during the coronavirus pandemic, other nations are leading by example.

Germany, despite being the largest country in Europe, has successfully carried out half a million tests a week. Almost half of the Germans to contract Covid-19 have already recovered from the disease.

In Iceland, coronavirus tests have been carried out on more than 10% of the entire population. The death rate there is below 0.5% – more than 20 times lower than that being recorded in the UK and Italy.

Other Scandinavian nations, like Denmark, Norway, and Finland, have also seen fewer cases and higher testing rates than many other countries.

In the small, east-Asian nation of Taiwan, over a hundred political measures were enacted as soon as news of the coronavirus broke. The country is now in a position to donate 10 million face masks to Europe and the US.

What do all of the above countries have in common?

Strikingly, they have all elected female leaders.

This has led many to suggest that in a time of a real crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, women make better presidents, chancellors, and prime ministers.

It is first and foremost a simple question of competence. As Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi points out, in societies traditionally dominated by men, “women generally have to be better in order to become leaders […and] you have to be twice as good as a man in order to be taken half as seriously”.

One example of this is the fact that, while Donald Trump used to host TV shows, Angela Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

What is more, experts and commentators alike have argued that instead of the macho posturing being performed by leaders like Trump or Putin, people need representatives who can listen to evidence, offer a calming influence, and empathise with their voters.

Psychologists have long credited women with better empathy and a tendency to prioritise expertise over ego.

For instance, the Norwegian and Danish premiers hosted reassuring press conferences especially for children, answering questions such as: “Can I have a birthday party?” and “Are you scared of becoming ill with coronavirus?”

So, in a crisis, is a woman leader more effective?

Ms. President

Yes. Women who get to the top in highly competitive fields, such as politics, are likely to be hugely gifted. Intellectually, they will have to be more powerful than their peers. In addition, they will be better team players. During a health crisis, where governments rely on persuading people to stay at home and not to lose hope, it helps to have the gift of empathy and, therefore, the ability to communicate well.

No. The qualities that have made the leaders of countries like New Zealand and Denmark so popular during this crisis could still be embodied by men. Humility and helpfulness do not belong exclusively to women. The fact that the countries listed above are all relatively wealthy democracies could have a lot more of a bearing on their successful response than the gender of their leaders.

You Decide

  1. Do you think there is any important difference between the way women and men behave when they are in charge?
  2. Who are the people who have shown the most leadership in your life?

Activities

  1. Do some research on the countries mentioned in this article. Make a list of the aspects they share beyond simply having women leaders.
  2. In a group chat with friends, discuss what makes a good leader. For each attribute you name, give an example of a famous person who best embodies that trait. Make a list of seven top attributes, with names attached.

Some People Say...

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), former UK prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The writer Viv Groskop points out that psychologists advise parents to tell children to “look to the helpers” in the event of a crisis. It is known that women make better team players, something that is essential in pursuit of global agreements and collaboration. Recent studies from top-ranked universities suggest that teams with the most women are better at analysing problems and finding solutions.
What do we not know?
A major unknown is whether the critical difference between some of countries in this story and others is (i) they have women leaders, or (ii) they are the sort of societies that are open-minded enough to elect women in the first place. Causation and correlation are not always aligned. If some form of femininity has a role to play in crisis leadership, then this will be difficult to pin-point and even trickier to prove.

Word Watch

Scandinavian
Region of northern Europe, the word refers to the people and culture of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Other countries like Finland and Iceland are sometimes referred to by the same term.
Taiwan
Officially called the Republic of China, Taiwan is a small nation, mostly made up of an island off the coast of mainland China. It is the most populous state (23 million) and prosperous economy not recognised by the UN.
Angela Merkel
The chancellor (democratically elected leader) of Germany since 2005. She is often seen as the most powerful woman in the world and affectionately called “mummy” (mutti) by many Germans.
Doctorate
A research degree, like a PhD (doctor of philosophy), that qualifies the holder to teach at university level in the degree’s field, or to work in a specific profession.
Quantum chemistry
A field of chemistry that tries to explain the strange and unusual behaviour of the smallest particle we know of: the electron.
Macho
Masculine in an overly assertive or aggressive way. Usually used today in a mocking or condescending way to describe people who think that being tough is all that matters.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.