Many media outlets have suggested countries that have flattened the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic and are led by women have fared better than those led by men. However, is this an oversimplified view based on attributes assigned to women, or about the kind of country that chooses a woman to lead it?
“Early in the pandemic, there was a flurry of news articles that highlighted the success of women leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand,” University of Nevada, Reno Political Science Associate Professor Robert Ostergard said. “Many of [those countries] proclaimed that women leaders were doing better at handling the pandemic than their male counterparts. So, we decided to examine how much evidence there was for that claim.”
In a recent article, Gender in the time of COVID-19: Evaluating national leadership and COVID-19 fatalities, published in the scientific journal PLOS One, Ostergard and his colleagues examine data for 175 countries around the world. They found that countries with women leaders did not have statistically fewer deaths from COVID-19 than countries led by men which contradicts early narratives about women-led countries doing better in the pandemic. Much of the narrative comes from only looking at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. This article examines the whole world, moving beyond OECD countries.
The country’s culture is more important – and those with more egalitarian societies tend to do better during crises.
The researchers found that women leaders face a gender double bind: they are penalized for being too masculine, but also penalized for being too feminine. Women leaders who flout gender expectations are labeled aggressive or pushy and those who perform along gender expectations are labeled too nice or not taken seriously. Crises like pandemics offer an opportunity for women world leaders to reconcile this double bind – they can be both decisive and strategic, as well as compassionate and nurturing. This is what people saw early in the pandemic (mid-March through mid-April 2020) with countries like New Zealand closing borders and instituting strict lockdowns, and leaders like Norway’s Erna Solberg making a special appeal to children saying, “It’s okay to feel scared.”
What matters more than the gender of the leader, the research found, is a country’s culture – power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualist/collectivist, feminine/masculine, short/long term orientation and indulgence/restraint. The country’s culture is more important – and those with more egalitarian societies tend to do better during crises. Those societies who elect women also have fewer deaths per population – so having a more egalitarian society and electing a woman leader has a statistically significant palliative effect on reducing the deaths from COVID-19.