Why are female leaders thriving in their tackling of the coronavirus?
Sofia Giles examines the role of female leadership in the approach to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The New Zealand government have been praised by the world as the first affected country to announce zero active cases of the virus. However, there have been 2 more active cases in the country both from UK citizens. Despite this, Jacinda Ardern’s initial approach and strict, early lockdown restrictions has meant that the country has recorded only 22 deaths. To put it simply, the country and Ardern’s government has excelled in combating Covid-19, leading to the safety and recovery of the country’s people and economy.
There have currently been 7.41 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide. From New Zealand to Denmark, Germany to Taiwan, what these countries have in common is effective management of this pandemic, and the leader of their nation being a woman. Of course, some male led countries, such as Greece or Australia, are also tackling Covid-19 well too, yet there are few female countries that have done badly.
German Chancellor, Angela Murkel, not only has a doctorate in quantum chemistry but her firm stamp on domestic policy has ensured a controlled and effective response to the pandemic. This firm leadership was again asserted in Merkel’s most recent national address, “Since German unification — no, since World War II — there has been no challenge to our country in which our acting together in solidarity matters so much.” Merkel’s manner in her message is as powerful as ever: assertive, assured and hitting home. The most recent poll has seen a 89% satisfaction rate of the German public believing the government have handled the crisis well.
There has been no challenge to our country in which our acting together in solidarity matters so much.
Similarly, New Zealand government’s popularity has soared with the governing Labour Party reaching a 55% approval. Ardern’s leadership has, similarly to Merkel, taken to reason rather than rousing in their approach. Juggling motherhood and being the Prime Minister, Ardern’s weekly national address have been via Facebook live from her living room. Albeit an unconventional medium and certainly far from the masculine archetype of leadership, Ardern has been praised for her empathetic and non-combative approach. Furthermore, Ardern’s spending has been commended by regular evaluation and amendment to government budgeting throughout the outbreak, launching a $175m recovery package for the arts sector and $200m for family violence services.
Hailed as a model for public health governance, the Taiwan government have also been praised with only 441 cases and 7 deaths of the coronavirus. President Tsai Ing-Wen took early measures of strict restrictions and travel bans in addition to making PPE ready and in abundance before the height of the virus. Though Taiwan is unable to partake in organisations such as WHO or the UN, the country also began donating some of their PPE to other countries such as the US when in need. Tsai Ing-Wen remarked that “Global crises test the fabric of the inter-national community, stretching us at the seams and threatening to tear us apart,” she wrote. “… We must set aside our differences and work together for the benefit of humankind.”
If we were to compare these three leaders, we can determine humility and empathy at the forefront of their leadership style and management of the coronavirus. Though both traditionally regarded as feminine characteristics, according to a study by Development Dimensions International, empathy is in fact the single most vital trait to ensuring overall successful leadership.
According to a study by Development Dimensions International, empathy is in fact the single most vital trait to ensuring overall successful leadership.
Government’s such as Jacinda Ardern’s operate by listening to and evaluating the changing needs of their people in real time, placing empathy at the forefront of their decision making. Not only does it make running the government a lot easier, but the general public feeling heard and supported is made evident in the polls which favour the current government’s style.
Though as humans we tend to listen to and thus follow naturally confident people, this confidence can be conflated with a bullish arrogance that mask the humility of some world leaders. However, a good sense of humility has the tendency to inspire people, thus gaining their followship and respect. Having been chancellor for 14 years, Angela Merkel has very naturally made a fair few mistakes. From admitting to flaws in Germany’s immigration and asylum seeker policy in 2016, to the country’s response to Brexit in 2018, Merkel’s sense of humility has earned her a sense of respect that is blended with her matter of fact leadership style. She has rallied this humility in her heartfelt response to the pandemic, likening each death of a German citizen as the death ‘of a father’.
However, though we should resist grouping these individual conclusions into what all female leaders embody, these successes also offer an insight into how female led governments are ran and the diversity that they encourage. Politically, female-led governments are using wider sources of information in developing national policy compared to that of male-led governments who rarely use advice from outside medical experts, relying primarily on epidemiological modelling. These male-led countries such as the UK and Sweden, have larger death tolls and weaker response policies in place, compared to the female-led countries with a drastically lower death rate and wider range of evidence to construct policies.
Furthermore, these diverse governments also understand wider needs of the public to thus inform spending. The coronavirus pandemic has somewhat exacerbated gender inequalities, such as access to paid work, maternity leave, and female healthcare. As the people who decide where their budget goes, female-led countries have placed more funds into social and domestic services as well as vaccine development compared to that of male-led countries.
Male leaders come with the traditional archetype that they are expected to meet. Leaders such as Ardern, Ing-Wen and Merkel couldn’t be further from that archetype and yet have been incredibly successful. In the future we can expect many more crises arising from climate change and natural disasters. Therefore, should we expect a change in what we perceive to be strong leadership? Eventually that could change perceptions of what strong leadership looks like. “What we learned with Covid-19 is that, actually, a different kind of leader can be very beneficial,” sociologist at King’s College London Dr. Evans said. “Perhaps people will learn to recognise and value risk averse, caring and thoughtful leaders.”