Are women the better crisis leaders?

An essay by Diandra Pittelli, student at the Europan University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany

The corona pandemic has proven to be more than a mere “flu”, it has the world completely under control and has shaped it in many ways. Some countries are more affected than others, and it therefore comes as no surprise that governments also react differently to the crisis.

Reading the newspapers lately, one could easily get the impression that there is a competition in which everyone is rooting to see which countries cope best with the corona crisis. This comparison, which took place in the media, also identified some winners, and they all have something in common: they are females. At the top of the list of role models we find Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or the heads of government of Finland, Taiwan, Norway and Iceland. Given this list, one might conclude that women are better at dealing with the crisis simply because they are women. Similar conclusions were drawn after the 2008 financial crisis, a world ruled by women was considered friendlier and less aggressive. Christine Lagarde, head of IMF, even stated in The Guardian (2018) that if the bank had been called Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers, it would be a different world. As always, the focus is on the ascribed qualities of empathy and care, “It is as if they could hug us warmly and lovingly from the video”, said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in Forbes (2020) when talking about the leading style of certain female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Prof. Dr Jochen Koch’s video “Leading, Sensemaking and the Future“, he says that leadership in crisis represents a balancing act between the need to absorb uncertainty and, on the other hand, the need for open communication. Based on this background I will take a more in-depth look into how politicians are absorbing uncertainty and communicating during the COVID-19 crisis and, by so doing, I want to see if the medias winners (female leaders) are indeed the better crisis leaders.

When talking about top leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted predominantly female politicians. There is Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who explains the infection rates of Covid-19 to the people clearly and soberly. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who exchanges empathy with her people live on Facebook and led her country to the lockdown early on, counts 22 dead so far with a population of 4.9 million inhabitants. Katrín Jakobsdóttir from Iceland stood out in the media for letting everyone in the country get tested for free. Not to forget about the heads of government of Scotland and Taiwan, who received positive feedback, or Erna Solberg in Norway, who held a press conference especially for children and assured them that it was perfectly okay if they were afraid. These women did not hesitate to frame this event as a crisis to create a form of urgency and to drop the old way to handle things and to adopt new tools. Obviously, other countries have also successfully curbed coronavirus spread, but those with female heads are specially pointed out.

Why is that? Right from the beginning of the corona crisis, those female leaders acted resolutely, transparently and, at the same time, showed empathy towards their citizens. Those female politicians absorbed uncertainty and created a common pattern of orientation that made action possible. The opposite is evident with some of their male counterparts. Several heads of state rely on authority and war rhetoric in the corona crisis, have downplayed the seriousness of the situation for a long time or even pointed their finger at other countries. Helen Lewis points out in the “Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft” journal (2020) that women, including those in top positions, appear to take fewer risks than men. Although there is still plenty of research to be done to verify her affirmation, this assumption is widely spread in society, which makes it easier for female politicians to communicate precautionary measures such as school closings or the mandatory wearing of face masks. As a “strong man”, it seems to be more challenging to make risk-averse decisions. The sociologist Eva Illouz stated in Die Zeit (2020) that the reasons for the success of female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis is that “Women pay attention to people and their well-being, while men pay attention to the economy”. According to Illouz, women are so socialized that they act “economically, medically and socially with foresight”.

So far, the prudent government style of female leaders has shown to be very successful; it is therefore, to no surprise that the media headlines are crowning women as the better crisis leaders.

However, saying that women are better crisis leaders just because of their “maternal instincts” is not only wrong, but also potentially dangerous for the advancement of women in politics. Women in politics are no better, “strong men” are just worse. Let us start with the most obvious example: Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the president has found that his policies against lung disease are useless, that the coronavirus cannot be intimidated, dismissed or degraded. “Strong men” come to power because they promise security in uncertain times. They present a simple enemy to the people and claim that only they can take them on. The more power they accumulate by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press, the better this strategy works. However, the virus cannot be delegitimized. Xi Jinping was faced with this problem at the outset of the pandemic when the Chinese government tried to suppress warnings from doctors about the new disease in Wuhan. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil dismissed the coronavirus as a “small flu or cold” and took part in a demonstration against the lockdown in April. While he was demonstrating, his head of communication was already infected. However, female heads of state can hardly be judged as a group because they still represent a small minority given that there are only 14 states with women in the highest position of executive power out of 193 UN member states. Therefore, every analysis of the female leadership figure suffers from a small number of possible cases to observe.

Three further aspects that debunk the statement “women are the better crisis leader” are as follows. First, many sociologists are comparing countries and economies in an undifferentiated way and reduce the differences to the gender of the government. Second, it is too early to assess which reactions to COVID-19 are the most successful from a health and economic perspective. Third, what about the male heads of state who are receiving positive feedbacks regarding their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis like Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor?

So, what can we say about top female politicians? Are women the better crisis leader? As a woman myself, I would have no hesitation in confirming this statement positively. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw conclusions from general studies because a person who makes it to the top in politics must be somehow unusual to start with. He or she needs talent, ambition, vigor and also favorable living conditions. In countries that are not used to female managers, a woman who works her way up to the top should be particularly tough and determined.

At first glance, the fact that top female politicians are better because they have more “empathy” is an attractive argument. Nevertheless, we should be aware of such arguments, because this essentialist gender perspective – men are like this, women like this – has historically always hampered women and is hugely reductionist. Besides, this argument overrides the fact that successful male top politicians also have empathy; in a functioning democracy in which it is essential to collect as many votes as possible, social competence is an advantage. A further possible explanation of why countries with female heads of state do better in this crisis should provide an incentive to think of other mechanisms. For instance, women would come to power more easily in a political culture “in which the government has a fair amount of support and trust,”  argues an article in The Guardian (2020). A country that chooses a “strong man” or where such a person can stay in power through electoral fraud is already in deep trouble.

Concluding, it is therefore not possible to say “women are the better crisis leader” without any hesitation. After hundreds of years of dogma that men are inherently better crisis leaders, the opposite is not suddenly true. Heads of state are not the cause, but a symptom of better government.

2 thoughts on “Are women the better crisis leaders?

  1. Pingback: Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis” | Organizing in Times of Crisis

  2. Pingback: New study on pandemic leadership | Organizing in Times of Crisis

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