The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the best and worst of today’s global leaders. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and other powerful male-led countries had the highest infection rates and death tolls. But other powerful and rich countries that are led by women, such as New Zealand, Germany, and Taiwan contained the spread of the virus. This suggests that during crisis, women can be more effective leaders than men. This article examines ways in which women have effectively managed the pandemic in their country or field, the benefits of diverse leadership, and corresponding COVID-19 data. It also discusses why men disproportionately occupy leadership positions, which is a conversation essential to understanding preconceived notions about gender and leadership. While leadership styles of men and women have been previously studied, the pandemic has provided a new way to explore what effective leadership looks like and has exposed flaws in traditional leadership goals and values. Although it cannot be said that women are better leaders than men, global COVID-19 data shows that female leaders have prevented extreme rates of transmission and death which speaks to their effectiveness as leaders during crisis. This connection is worth investigating. Patriarchy enforces the idea that women cannot be effective leaders. This article is part of a discussion that proves otherwise, and that which will help break this stereotype.
During times of war, economic crises, and today’s global pandemic, the majority of the world’s leaders have been men. This is how society has operated for thousands of years with few exceptions like Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great, who defied even stricter patriarchal societies than those of today. Over the years, we have seen more diverse leadership; like the recent election of America’s first female African American and Asian American Vice President, Kamala Harris. Despite the progress women have made throughout the world, we still have not seen them lead in the sheer number men have. However, the few women in high political positions today have proven they are capable of being effective leaders, even in times of crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that women can be more effective leaders than men. As will be discussed, many countries with women heads of state, such as New Zealand, have dealt with the pandemic far better than even the most powerful countries in the world that are led by men. The coronavirus pandemic has also shown the flaws of traditional American leadership and how diverse leadership is beneficial during times of crisis. This article will compare leadership during the pandemic in women-led countries to countries led by men. It will also expose the long-held idea that women should not be leaders. By recognizing the success of today’s women leaders during the coronavirus pandemic, this article contributes to the work of dismantling sexist ideas about gender and leadership.
What prevents women from obtaining high leadership positions?
In a patriarchal society, like the United States and most of the world, women face more obstacles when trying to reach powerful leadership positions than men. Gender stratification in the United States appears in all types of leadership positions. For example, men hold most managerial and CEO positions in business and hold more public office positions in federal and state levels of government. While more women have been breaking the glass ceiling, they are still hindered by society’s expectations about women and leadership norms.
Dr. Leah Sheppard (2018), an associate professor at Washington State University, found that young women do not aspire to be leaders or think they can be effective leaders in their future careers. Sheppard works in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship where she focuses on gender stereotyping in organizational settings. In her study of undergraduate students, she evaluated if each participant thought being a leader was personally attainable, and what positive and negative characteristics they associated with leadership. Overall, Sheppard found that the men in her study thought leadership was more personally attainable for them than women did. The women also associated more negative emotions such as stress and frustration with being a leader and thought being in a leadership position could one day negatively affect their relationship with a spouse (Sheppard, 2018). Traditional ideas about leadership have been socially constructed to teach women that the role of ‘female’ and the role of ‘leader’ are mutually exclusive. If women do not believe they can be effective leaders, they will not strive to obtain leadership positions in their future careers.
Women who do succeed in obtaining high leadership positions often face extreme, negative backlash that is directly aimed at their gender. This is especially true for women in powerful political positions, like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, the opposition to Hillary Clinton was expressed through phrases like “Life’s a Bitch: Don’t Vote for One,” “KFC: Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts,” and “Trump That Bitch” that appeared on clothing and other merchandise (Brescoll et. al 2018). Instead of commenting on her personal qualities as a leader, these insults explicitly target Clinton’s gender. This unfair, hurtful treatment of women leaders solely because of their gender, discourages young women from wanting to become future leaders.
Women in positions of power are seen as violators of the gender hierarchy and thus, as a threat to the structure of society. Because of this, they face extreme criticism merely because of their gender. Similarly, Brescoll et. al (2018) argues that women who are ambitious, independent, and assertive discredit the notion that men have more power than women. These women challenge gender hierarchies and arise feelingsfeelings of contempt and disgust that arise in people. (Brescoll et. al, 2018). By recognizing that female leaders can successfully navigate through a crisis, like the pandemic, society will be more open to seeing women as good leaders rather than people who do not belong in leadership positions.
The long-term effects of COVID-19 on our economy and other aspects of society are unknown. Literature around the pandemic and leadership is also limited. Andrea Aldrich and Nicholas Lotito (2020) conducted a study aimed at contrasting the policy response to COVID-19 in countries led by men and countries led by women. It is important to note that Aldrich and Lotito were clear that their findings did not support the claim that women leaders responded more effectively than male leaders. However, variations in policy do show that female leaders responded to the pandemic differently than men which resulted in different infection and death rates.
While the assumption cannot be made that women are better leaders than men because of policy differences, the result of this policy difference can be used to judge the efficacy of leadership. New Zealand, for example, has experienced 26 COVID-19 related deaths between January, 2020 and March, 2021. This is a direct reflection of Prime Minister Ardern’s strict stay-at-home policies (WHO coronavirus). On the contrary, the more than 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the United States during the same time, is also a direct reflection of the lack of response to the pandemic by leaders in the United States. These two responses to the COVID-19 pandemic will be compared further throughout this article.
There has been a wide range of responses to the pandemic. Some leaders, like Ardern, saw the seriousness of COVID-19 when the first outbreak occurred and enforced strict lockdowns and masks mandates. In other places, like the United States, guidelines designed for a pandemic that were set by previous leaders and backed by science were purposefully ignored. Haslem et al. identifies five priorities for leaders during crisis: reflect on shared social identity, represent collective goals, realize shared identity in plans and policy, reinforce shared identity through ongoing action, and ready the group for mobilization. Unlike Aldrich and Lotito, Haslem et. al. studied policy implementation, leadership styles, and outcomes using empirical data. While these researchers did not explicitly study the different priorities of female and male leaders, many supporting examples the researchers provided were strategies used by female leaders.
The prime example Haslem et. al. provides is New Zealand’s first COVID-19 national alert, which was issued on March 25, 2020. The message contains these phrases: “This message is for all of New Zealand. We are depending on you,” “This will save lives,” and “Let’s all do our bit to unite against COVID-19.” This language encourages unity and a shared social identity which Haslem et al. claims are the most important factors when navigating through crisis (2021). In the next section, I will provide more examples of how global female leaders have utilized these factors to effectively manage the pandemic.
Many examples of how leaders did not follow these priorities are also provided by Haslem et al. to show how the crisis was improperly managed. For example, after the borders between the states in the United States were closed to decrease the spread of COVID-19, former President Trump decided that the borders should open again even though COVID-19 was still running rampant through the country. He claimed that he had total authority as president, but this only alienated Americans who opposed reopening borders and casted them as opponents (Haslem et al.). Instead of uniting against COVID-19, Americans were pitted against each other.
Female Leaders in a Global Pandemic
The Pew Research Center reports that since 1953, 70 countries have had a woman leader (Geiger and Kent, 2017). There are currently 15 women world leaders, and about half of them are their country’s first woman head of state (Geiger and Kent, 2017). Thus, the overwhelming majority of world leaders who are dealing with the pandemic are men. Previous research has shown that men and women do have different leadership skills and strategies.; Judy Rosener (2014) describes women in managerial positions as interactive leaders; they encourage participation, share power and information, and enhance others’ self-worth. When it comes to dealing with crisis, Haslem et al. would agree that these traits are necessary to create unity and a shared social identity in a crisis, as seen in New Zealand. On the other hand, traditional American leadership is rooted in individualism, which one could argue is to blame for the condition of America a year into the pandemic. This is evident through extreme opposition to mask mandates, and restrictions on businesses, and social gatherings; which many say are violations of their individual freedoms.
The female leaders who have received the most recognition for their response to the pandemic are Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand;, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany;, and Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. All of these leaders have managed to keep infection rates and death rates relatively low in their countries compared to other developed countries. Haslem et al. frequently mentions these countries as ones who focused on the five priorities in order to deal with crisis.
In order to successfully deal with crisis, leaders must materially and psychologically prepare their group for crisis. Haslem et al. uses Germany and Taiwan as successful examples of this. Angela Merkel successfully united citizens across party lines, which removed the partisan aspect out of the pandemic and created a common goal for the country. During an address to the nation, Merkel said that “Since World War II, there has been no greater challenge to our country that depends so much on us acting together in solidarity” (Haslem et al. 2021). This is similar to comments made by Ardern and drastically different from the response of politicians in the United States during the pandemic. There has been little to no unity between party lines in the United States, and this was only encouraged by former President Trump’s divisive language. For example, by calling COVID-19 the “Chinavirus,” the blame for the virus was put entirely on China. This put Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans in danger because people thought Chinese-Americans were bringing COVID-19 to the United States.
The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen has been noted for her excellent use of testing and contract tracing to control the spread of COVID-19 (Taub, 2020). The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control has reported 10 coronavirus related deaths even with almost 200,000 reported cases (Taiwan Centers for Disease Control). While the scientific aspects of pandemic control are not Tsai Ing-wen’s expertise, she knows that other people have important knowledge about how to save lives. This response was very different from the national response in the United States which ignored scientists’ knowledge about testing and contract tracing.
It is important to recognize other women leaders that are not on the global stage, who are also effectively managing the pandemic. Chief Medical Officer Bonnie Henry has been noticed for her effective leadership in British Columbia, Canada. According to Haslem, she led selflessly, which encouraged people to listen to what she was asking of them:
When asked by the New York Times journalist Catherine Porter about how she did this, interestingly, Henry had little to say about her own leadership and instead focused primarily on her connection and empathy with the people to whom she had responsibility, commenting ‘It really is about the recognition that we are all in the same storm.’ (p. 40)
Henry’s actions helped to create a sense of social identity with the people she served. In order for a group to overcome a crisis, there needs to be collective action. While what a leader says and does is important, how people react to the leader’s words and actions will determine if the group successfully manages the crisis. British Columbia, with a population of about 5 million, has experienced 1,500 COVID-19 related deaths (Government of Canada 2021, Canadian Outbreak At-A-Glance 2020). By focusing her efforts on making connections and leading with empathy, Henry was able to persuade the people she served to listen to her policy in order to minimize infection and death rates. While Henry might not be on the global stage, her leadership still matters and is another example of a woman leading successfully during the pandemic.
Benefits of Diverse Leadership
The success of women leaders during the COVIIVD-19 pandemic also shows the importance of diverse leadership. In recent years there has been an increased number of women elected into the United States Congress. Women make up 27% of the most recently elected Congress, which is a record high (Blazina & DeSilver, 2021). However, Congress still does not accurately represent over half of the United States population, which is made of women. This disproportionate representation results in the interests of only some American’s being considered when policy is made.
Although there are many ways in which leadership can (and should) be more diverse, one way is gender diversity. When women are in positions of power, they use their experiences as women in a patriarchal society to make decisions as we have seen by this article. For example, Aldrich and Lotito (2020) found women leaders were slower to close schools. When schools and daycares were forced to shut down, women were disproportionately forced to stay home and take care of children because of the gendered nature of childcare. Women leaders understood this gendered impact and chose to delay closing schools to lessen the negative effects on women’s lives. Angela Merkel’s response to coronavirus also reflects the benefits of diverse leadership: “Ms. Merkel’s government considered a variety of different information sources in developing its coronavirus policy, including epidemiological models; data from medical providers; and evidence from South Korea’s successful program of testing and isolation” (Taub, 2020). Merkel chose to listen to scientists from different fields and other experts from around the world to develop a plan against the pandemic instead of addressing it from a purely political angle.
The leadership of women during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that women can be effective leaders, despite the beliefs of patriarchal societies. This has been most recently proven by the various government responses to the pandemic. The infection and death rates in New Zealand, Taiwan, and British Columbia, Canada are some of the lowest in the world; and it is not a coincidence that these places have women in high positions of power. These women have disrupted society’s preconceived notion that women do not belong in positions of power. Women bring new ideas and perspectives to the table. They have found ways to effectively manage a pandemic in the places they lead and ensure everyone’s interests are represented.
While this article does provide evidence for women’s effectiveness as leaders, the argument cannot be made that women are better leaders than men. Instead, it suggests that because of their experiences in patriarchal societies, women govern differently than men, in ways that are often effective. Despite the many factors that affect how a leader approaches a crisis, women leaders are working in a society that is designed against them and have been in these positions of power for all of history without recognition. They are living in a world that tells them they do not belong in positions of power. Acknowledging the success of women during this century’s most testing global event proves society’s sexist ideas about women in positions of power wrong.
Aldrich, A. S., Lotito, N. J. (2020). Pandemic Performance: Women Leaders in the
Covid-19 Crisis. Politics & Gender, 16, 960–967.
Blazina, C., & DeSilver, D. (2021, January 22). A record number of women are serving in
the 117th Congress. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-
Brescoll, V. L., Okimoto, T. G., & Vial, A. C. (2018). You’ve Come a Long Way…Maybe: How
Moral Emotions Trigger Backlash Against Women Leaders. Journal of Social Issues,
74(1), 144–164. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12261
esri Canada. (2020). Canadian Outbreak At-A-Glance. COVID-19 Resources. https://resources-
Geiger, A., Kent, L. (2017, March 8). Number of women leaders around the world has grown,
but they're still a small group.
Government of Canada. (2021, March 18). Population estimates, quarterly. Statistics Canada.
Haslam, S. A., Steffens, N. K., Reicher, S. D., & Bentley, S. V. (2021). Identity Leadership in a
Crisis: A 5R Framework for Learning from Responses to COVID‐19. Social Issues &
Policy Review, 15(1), 35–83. https://doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12075.
Rosener, J. B. (2014, August 1). Ways Women Lead. Harvard Business Review.
Sheppard, L. D. (2018). Gender Differences in Leadership Aspirations and Job and Life
Attribute Preferences among U.S. Undergraduate Students. Sex Roles, 79(9/10), 565–
Taiwan Centers for Disease Control. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov.tw/En.
Taub, A. (2020, May 15). Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19? The New
York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-
WHO coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard. (n.d.). https://covid19.who.int/.