Do women make better crisis leaders?

The two countries which were most effective in their response with the corona virus outbreak were the female leaders in New Zealand and Iceland. Only 20 out of 193 states worldwide are led by a female leader. Yet despite this massive underrepresentation, it is exactly this minority of countries led by women that have been the highly successful on handling the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. On measurement of the best performing countries in the world, four out of the ten were women; these countries are Estonia, Iceland, Taiwan, and New Zealand.

In comparison, the countries which dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic in the worst way, regarding numbers of death, unclear and inaccurate messaging were male leaders. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, US President, Donald Trump, and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro had some of the worst responses to the outbreak. These three countries have the highest mortality rates in the world. Boris Johnson delayed the imposition of a national lockdown resulting in a higher death rate in the UK. While in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern imminently imposed a strict lockdown before the virus had spread in New Zealand. According to an analysis by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the WEF, the difference in response ‘may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses’ which were strongly adopted by female leaders.

What are the root causes of the different response by female and male leaders?

It could be explained by traditional ‘female’ and ‘male’ traits. A Norwegian study called ‘What great managers do’ of three-thousand managers looked at the characteristics of good leaders. They found five main characteristics: being emotionally stable, being extroverts, open to new challenges and experiences, being social and methodological. According to the study, women were more likely than men to score four or more out of these five traits (comparing to their male counterpart that on average scored two or three. A study by Zenger and Folkman surveyed 7,280 leaders which confirmed the seemingly eternal truths about men and women in the workplace. Majority of leaders were still men. Women did exceed at building relationships and developing others. Interestingly, more women than men were rated by their peers and colleagues as better leaders than their counterpart male leaders. Females even outscored males at traits such as ‘taking initiative’ and ‘driving for results’ that were long considered to be particularly male strengths. What conclusions can we draw from this survey and others? What is preventing more women from becoming leaders and what is it that makes females better leaders?

Some explanations may lie in levels of risk averseness between males and females and different leadership styles. Research has indicated that men and women often have very different leadership styles. Professor Eagly conducted extensive research in 2005 on the topic of gender differences in leadership styles. The main difference found was women were more likely to lean towards a relational leadership, whereas men tended to opt-in for a more autocratic leadership. Eagly believes that during the time of crisis, it is the qualities of women that are more productive. Leaders need to collaborate with different stakeholders to successfully fight the pandemic. As Eagly put it and quoted by Forbes:

In the U.S., the president has to work with governors and mayors, who would in turn ideally work well with community leaders. And political leaders have to consult with private sector leaders to produce masks and ventilators. And of course, there are scientific experts whose knowledge is crucial. These aren’t situations in which one leader has autocratic power over another leader. So, this particular crisis is not a situation that can be controlled top-down, as our president has found”

Of course, there are other important qualities to be a good leader and this study has only used the measurement of handing a crisis as an example. Of course, each leader should be judged on her/his own merits and accomplishments but it is clear there are certain qualities that tend to mark good leadership in a time of crisis.

Author: Ekaterina Dimitrova

Director of Eastern and Central Europe, Ekaterina Dimitrova is from Bulgaria but was educated in the UK and resides in London. She got involved in political campaigning since her early teenage years when she actively participated in campaigns for Bulgaria to join the EU and for the wider inclusion of minorities in Bulgarian post-communist society. Ekaterina worked on campaigns to protect the status and rights of EU citizens after the 2016 Brexit referendum and is actively involved in climate advocacy. She has written articles that range from geopolitical and business to technology, and recently found her own website geopolitics made simple.

Ekaterina has advised think tanks such as CUNCR with her analysis. She is fluent in four languages and holds a joint bachelors degree in political science and linguistics and masters in marketing.

November 13, 2020