Might the Pandemic (Finally) Change the Leadership Stereotype?

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 countries 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.

5 thoughts on “Might the Pandemic (Finally) Change the Leadership Stereotype?”

  1. A lot of this is social science so data is not as concrete as physical science. I agree that men and women have different tendencies on a large scale, but to suggest Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Barack Obama are the same as DJT because they are men is a little lost on me. This is probably a naive thought by a 23 year old, but people should look at people as an individual. A whole host of reasons can be for why countries led by women tend to have lower rates of mortality. I do not think the gender of a person determines that. I accept on a general basis that men and women have different ways of thinking and making decisions, but that does not mean universally all women are this way and all men are that way. A woman that leads well should be commended because she is a great leader, not because she is a woman. A man that is a bad leader should not be regarded as a good leader because he is a man. That is social injustice.

  2. I think it is a little unfair to almost dismiss the success of female leaders just because social science is more fluid than physical science. It is important to look at the difference of how men and women in power use that power. Seemingly, women have been using their power during this pandemic as a way to protect their citizens and trying to be more practical in their decision-making. Men have been quick to make decisions, which seems irrational given all of the tragedy around COVID-19. Further, I think in order to further equality in leadership in countries, it is important to point out women in power who are doing a good job. We have to recognize these women because they are really opening the door for the inclusion of more women in world leadership. Also, as the article points out, men are also benefitting from this strong leadership by women, and could learn to better adapt their leadership styles to be more accommodating empathetic, rather than just acting crass.

  3. Sadly, what remains of my hope for a change in the direction of our leadership is all but lost at this point. However, this pandemic, of course, presents problems of first impression for modern-day leadership.

    Like you stated above, women are less susceptible to common decision errors like overconfidence, are less likely to take risks, and are more conscientious in their decision making approach. Thanks to your research, and the work of many others, this is a proven fact and has been a proven fact for years.

    Yet, very few women are in a position to influence major decision making. In my opinion, I don’t think this pandemic will have any more impact on bias than other tragedies like school shootings, climate change, police brutality, casualties caused by militarization of third world countries, etc. People want their decision-making done by a familiar face, someone they trust. Men have led our country over 240 years. It’s men that have a “familiar face.”

  4. The pressing, sometimes unprecedented, issues that face any Head of State during their tenure are broad, multi-faceted, and unpredictable. No leader can be prepared for every challenge that may face his or her country. One of the essential duties of any executive is to faithfully delegate responsibility to experts in a particular field as those specific challenges arise. It is in this task that differences tend to arise between leaders of different genders.

    Take the United States for example. What is the purpose of America’s vast bureaucracy if not to provide a specialized response to a specific threat? In the case of a pandemic, what is the purpose of America’s public health apparatus (however imperfect it may be), if elected officials fail to take seriously the warnings emanating from it.

    In stark juxtaposition to the highly politicized, even sensationalized response in the United States, leaders cited above by The Atlantic, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, were quick on the uptake to adopt a public health response to the current pandemic. The result? New Zealand has essentially defeated the disease, while the United States remains embroiled in political turmoil.

    Such a response should not come as a surprise in light of the social science and tendencies referenced above. Overconfidence is noted as a hallmark, or at least a tendency, of males in leadership. President Trump, Prime Minister Ardern, Chancellor Merkel, and leaders worldwide were not elected (or however one ascends to power in a specific country) with the insight that one day they will lead a nationwide coronavirus battle. One’s leadership is not tied to scientific knowledge, and these leaders will not, and should not be judged accordingly. Instead, history should reflect positively upon leaders who are able to put aside the need to be the face of the fight and instead remember those willing to merely implement the advice of those more learned than themselves on issues of disease prevention.

    The overriding message to be learned is female leaders are more willing to recognize the need to outsource the highly technical challenges facing an executive to experts, internalize said experts’ advice, and formulate policy guidelines in accordance. As we return to “normal” we must seek those leaders willing to put ego aside and embrace the need for outside knowledge. Hopefully, as a society, we begin to recognize these virtues and see a destigmatization of who is most capable of leading.

  5. Thanks for this piece.

    The description of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern reminded me of Dr. Amy Acton, the Director of Ohio’s Health Department. This recent video analyzes some of the elements of her effectiveness. She is being attacked by thugs gathering on her front lawn who must feel threatened, but most of the populace respects her expertise and appreciates her leadership style. She is forthright, inclusive, personal, and downright inspirational.

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