Why Are Women World Leaders Combating the Coronavirus Pandemic So Well–and What Does This Tell Us About Leadership?

With the world caught in the vortex of the pandemic, it’s clear that some of the best results to date have occurred in countries that have elected women as their leaders. Indeed, an article in The Guardian bore this headline:

“The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Coronavirus: Women.”

I find this phenomenon intriguing and have been wondering what lessons might emerge to help us going forward. There seem to be several commonalities among these women.

First, Let’s Look at Some of the Notable Success Stories.

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Tsai Ind-Wen, President, Taiwan

There’s Tsai Ing-Wen, who was elected President of Taiwan in 2016. Although Taiwan is close to mainland China, where the virus first surfaced and rampaged, her rapid actions resulted in fewer than 400 confirmed cases and six deaths out of a population of about 24 million people. 

Working with her vice president, an epidemiologist, she ordered all planes from Wuhan inspected when she first heard about the virus in December. She then restricted flights from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, created an epidemic command center, and increased production of personal protective equipment (PPE).

These efforts were so successful that Taiwan has actually been donating masks to the US and 11 European countries.

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Katrin Jakobsdottir, PM, Iceland

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Prime Minister of Iceland, has overseen testing of nearly 12% of her country’s population, a much greater percentage than any other country. She’s done so by collaborating with a biotech company that offers free tests to anyone who wants one—regardless of whether they have symptoms or believe they’ve been exposed to the virus. Iceland also does in-depth contact tracing to locate and isolate people who may have been exposed.

Although there hasn’t been a countrywide lockdown, they’ve banned gatherings of more than 20 people. I’m assuming that with a population of just over 364,000, that degree of testing and tracing inspires some confidence that greater restrictions aren’t needed.

In fact they’ve screened five times the number of people as South Korea. As of April 17, Iceland had 1,739 known cases, with eight deaths.

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Sanna Marin, PM, Finland

Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, is the youngest female leader in the world, at age 34, and has a largely female cabinet. Finland recently increased its testing capacity by 50% and began nationwide antibody testing.

With a population of about 5.5 million, Finland has seen 3,489 cases and 75 deaths. According to The Christian Science Monitor, a Finnish Broadcast reporter said:

“Her performance at press conferences and in parliament has been just what works best for Finns–clear, concise, unemotional; but with an undertone of warmth.”  

A recent poll showed that 85% of Finns approve of Marin’s handling of the pandemic.

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Erna Solberg, PM, Norway

Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, announced recently that the contagion curve has been sufficiently leveled so that her country “has managed to gain control of the virus.” She began lifting the strict controls by reopening some businesses and kindergartens. The known incidence in Norway, with a population of nearly 5.4 million, is 6,905 cases and 157 deaths.

Solberg has followed the scientists’ advice in her actions and comforted her people: she said in a news conference that “It’s okay to be scared,” and that she missed hugging her friends, words she felt were especially important for young people to hear.

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Jacinda Ardern, PM, New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, closed the borders immediately, prepared people for self-quarantine, and implemented widespread testing; to date, there have been 1300 cases and just one death in a population of 4.8 million people. The fact that New Zealand is an island has been a factor in her success, but Ardern has also received high marks for the clarity of her leadership and her compassion.

She’s appeared in streaming videos at home, reassured kids that she counts the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny as “essential workers,” and announced that she and her cabinet would take 20 percent pay cuts for six months. She’s been said to demonstrate that a head of state can actually lead with both resolve and kindness.” 

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Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Germany

And then there’s Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. There have been more than 148,000 infections among its 83 million people, but very low deaths per million (fewer than 5000 as of April 17)—considerably lower than other European countries. Germany has the most large-scale testing program in Europe and the most intensive care beds.

Merkel’s popularity has skyrocketed because she’s handled the crisis so well. She told the public:

“I’m absolutely sure we will overcome this crisis. But how many casualties will there be? How many loved ones will we lose?…We are a community in which every life and every person counts.” 

A Guardian account reported:

“As one wag on Twitter joked: if you’re asking why death rates are so low in Germany and so high in America, it’s ‘because their president used to be a quantum chemist and your president used to be a reality television host.”

Merkel, whose title is chancellor, has a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

Why Have These Women Been So Successful?

According to The Guardian reporter,

“Correlation is obviously not causation. Being a woman doesn’t automatically make you better at handling a global pandemic. Nor does it automatically make you a better leader; suggesting it does reinforces sexist and unhelpful ideas that women are innately more compassionate and cooperative.

“What is true, however, is that women generally have to be better in order to become leaders…held to far higher standards than men…you have to be twice as good as a man in order to be taken half as seriously. You have to work twice as hard.”

It seems fairly obvious that what makes a successful leader is a combination of strength, effective decision-making, and compassion. That doesn’t necessarily describe a woman.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reputation has soared, despite the delay in aggressively confronting the threat, because his tough guy persona has been substantially softened by what appears to be genuine compassion. 

But the effective women leaders are the result of a specific environment, says Kathleen Gersen, a sociology professor at New York University.

“Female leaders are also likely to be nourished and supported within societies that themselves have a certain culture.”

For Gersen,

“If you have a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government, and it’s a culture that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men, you’ve already got a head start.” 

She also thinks that women who reach such lofty positions feel less tied to traditional methods of leading.

“There are so many ways that men are expected to behave when they’re leaders that I think it sometimes makes it difficult for them to step over those boundaries and act in a different way from the norm.” 

Though Gersen offers Governor Cuomo as an example of this breakthrough, we’ve seen one terrible—and several poor—examples of male leadership, or lack thereof, that involved differing from the norm. 

These bad examples show us in the negative why the ways the women have acted have been successful. 

In fact, the pandemic forces leaders to face the vastness of unknowns, so they must rely on their inner strengths and creativity more than on existing norms. They have acted promptly and forcefully.

They have also sought expert advice and relied upon the science. And, importantly, they have brought along the people they serve by communicating with them with honesty, clarity, and compassion.

Looking Forward…

If, Gersen says, women leaders can demonstrate that strength and compassion are not conflicting traits—that they actually complement one another and are both essential for good leadership,

“I think not only will society benefit. but so will men. Maybe then we can begin to open up the scripts for roles that leaders play”—regardless of gender. 

What do you think? Women presently make up only 25% of the world’s leaders, but they’ve been the shining lights in this darkest of times.

Do you agree with Kathleen Gersen’s belief that women succeed where there’s relative support and trust in government and not the stark distinctions between men and women?

If so, what does that assessment say about our future in the US—or wherever else you, my thoughtful readers, reside?

Annie

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