Leaders like Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel captured global attention early on in the pandemic – their performance exemplified effective crisis management
Does a leader’s gender really make a difference in the fight against COVID-19?
Findings of a new study suggest countries led by women are managing the crisis “systematically and significantly better” than those led by men – and this may be due in part to the female leaders’ “proactive and coordinated” policy responses.
In the early months of the pandemic, countries headed by women such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, were among the first to get a handle on the crisis,keeping infection and mortality rates relatively low.
While their performance has captured media attention, it also serves as a global experiment on crisis management, said Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, academics who led the study.
They used insights from behavioural studies and leadership literature to test whether there were indeed differences between female and male leadership.
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Looking at the statistics, the researchers found that “female-led countries have fared better in terms of absolute number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with male-led countries having nearly double the number of deaths as female-led ones”.
But of the 194 countries examined, only 19 had a female leader. “To overcome the difficulty of imbalanced sample sizes, we ‘match’ each of the female-led countries with their nearest neighbour,” Garikipatiand Kambhampatinoted in an article published by the World Economic Forum.
“Nearest-neighbour analysis clearly confirms that when women-led countries are compared to countries similar to them along a range of characteristics, they have performed better, experiencing fewer cases as well as fewer deaths. This is true whether we consider the nearest neighbour, the nearest two, three or even five neighbours,” they said.
Women reacted more quickly and more decisively
Female leaders also had a tendency to respond to the crisis faster and “more decisively”.
“In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances,” the researchers wrote in a paper subject to peer review.
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“While this may have longer-term economic implications, which we cannot test here, it has certainly helped these countries to save lives, as evidenced by the significantly lower numbers of deaths in these countries,” they said.
Women and men also differed in their attitudes towards risk and uncertainty, but there were nuances to these findings.On one hand, women were less willing to take risks with lives; on the other,they were more willing to accept economic risks.
Women were ‘more democratic and participative’
But do these gendered nuances also translate into differences in their leadership styles?
“While research in organisational studies found little difference between male and female leadership styles, laboratory experiments and assessment studies found evidence to suggest that leadership styles were somewhat gender stereotypic with men likely to lead in a ‘task-oriented’ style and women in an ‘interpersonally-oriented’ manner,” the researchers said.
“Consistent with this finding, women tended to adopt a more democratic and participative style
and a less autocratic or directive style than men,” they said.
As the pandemic rages on across the world, the researchers have pointed out that their data cover only the early months of the crisis. “Much could change in the next few months,” they said.
But from their analysis, there appears to be evidence that “being risk averse with respect to loss of lives and having a clear, empathetic and decisive communication style”spelled the difference in how women-led countries managed the crisis, the researchers said.