By Rixa Riess
The Coronavirus crisis amplified the grievances of society through a burning glass. Women’s relapse into the traditional role as caretaker and housewife during the lockdowns received a lot of attention. It confirms that gender equality isn’t reality yet.
At the same time, however, a more encouraging scientific finding seems to be proved: Women in government contribute more to security and prosperity. During the pandemic female stateswomen showed outstanding crisis management at the top of governments. ,
First and foremost: New Zealand. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, on March 21st, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced a clear guideline with a country-wide alert system. Four days later the country was put into a nationwide lockdown and by May didn’t record new cases. ‘Going hard and going early’, was the Prime Minister’s motto. She stood out for defensive action and honest communication. Although at this point New Zealand isn’t Coronavirus-free just yet, the style of governance gained respect internationally. It proved successful, besides having a low population density of 18 people per square kilometre. In comparison, the population density of the UK amounts to around 275 people per square kilometre. But, as the example of Taiwan shows (673 people per square kilometre), low population density does not always correlate with the success of virus control. Taiwan’s success story is also not only linked to its geographical advantage of being an island only, but to its rigorous and early actions. Under President Tsai Ing-wen, the government rigorously tracked travel and contact history and independently produced masks to prevent panic buys.
Finland also managed the pandemic well. Under Prime Minister Sanna Marin, the government drove public life down to a minimum in spring, unlike their much-discussed Swedish neighbours. On May 16th, with less than 300 recorded cases, the country went into lockdown. The interior minister, Maria Ohisalo, outlined the importance of sensitive communication and cooperation within the government to successfully master the crisis.
Now, the successes at the beginning of the pandemic have been forgotten: Voices are raised criticising the inadequate measures after the first lockdown. Even though now, most heads of state can be accused of underestimating the tenacity of the virus, the initial reactions to the outbreak of Covid-19 is of enormous importance in assessing leadership: Dealing with and assessing a new acute emergency is the starting point of crisis management. With regards to this, the female-led countries performed better.
A recent study found that female-led nations suffered fewer Coronavirus deaths than their male-led neighbours: In the face of potential fatalities, female leaders made risk-averse decisions and were willing to take more economic risks at the same time. Other male-led countries claimed to have everything under control or actually denied the existence of the virus. Among them the United States, the UK, Russia, and India. Making false statements to promote their own governance turned out to be fatal. They downplayed the threat and waited for a clearer picture to make decisions. The fear of economic damage and its political consequences appeared to be bigger than the fear of the virus. In times of a pandemic, slow actions mean deaths. They undeniably reveal any faked control. Now, the named countries lament an above-average number of fatalities and additionally experienced a significant economic decline.
One could argue that the subject of a crisis shouldn’t be gender or sex but rather about finding an efficient solution to the problem, especially when the theatre of horrors has not yet reached its final act. At least for once, one could sarcastically add, no one is doubting the person in charge for their suitability for the position because of her sex.
Some argue, that connecting good leadership to women is in itself sexist, and that female leadership is a symptom of a successful political system. An important argument, but it falls short in view of the fact that there are only 16 women globally leading a country. Now, humanity is (once again) asking itself the fundamental question of how it weighs central things like the economic system, the environment, or social division. So why not put female leadership in politics up for debate as a fundamental necessity for society?
Research perceives politics as a ‘gendered legacy’ (Lockhart & Mollick, 2013), which has been male dominated. It seems like the pandemic breaks traditional leadership approaches open. It lies within the nature of a crisis that society and politics face a new disastrous event of which the outcome can’t yet be grasped to its full extent. Long-term considerations must be made. The Coronavirus crisis has shown: basic human concerns must be taken just as seriously as the fact that a crisis needs clear decisions to be taken by the leadership. The German Chancellor’s unusual emotional plea for an understanding of the situation was exemplary. She connected the necessary enforcement and empathy. It is therefore not surprising that scholars attribute a more transformational leadership style to women. This includes concern, respect, demonstrating compassion, care and equality. Men tend to have a transactional style, which is more direct and achievement-oriented. A report from 2009 shows that women tend to demonstrate more often than men essential leadership behaviour that improves organizational performance. Regarding the financial crisis in 2008, the research found that women more frequently adopt certain leadership behaviour seen as most important in and after the crisis, e.g. motivate action and inventiveness. These skills will be needed during the recovery of the pandemic, too.
The Coronavirus crisis could be a door opener to follow up on the discussion regarding too few women in politics with action. Societies must ask themselves if there has been a fundamental misinterpretation of which characteristics determine good leadership and to whom they are attributed. Since the beginning of statehood, men are associated with leadership. Women often have been overlooked, even though they have the same necessary skills to lead. Thus, new challenges require us to question our traditional associations once again – especially because in states of emergency societies tend to stick to familiar, often traditional patterns.
However, the re-election of some stateswomen, e.g. Tsai Ing-wen, Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern, speaks for itself indeed, and yet society and academia, especially after this crisis, need to contribute to this specific discourse in order to effectively promote this modern political and female leadership in the minds and in practice.
Rixa Riess holds a Bachelor in Culture and Economy from the University of Mannheim and is currently studying towards a Master degree in International Relations at KCL. Find her on Twitter @Rixariess.