We need more women in top leadership roles. We also need male leaders embracing the qualities women leaders exemplified throughout the pandemic. Nothing less than our future depends on it.
Women are often unfairly criticized for being “too emotional” or “too soft,” yet it is the depth of emotional intelligence and interest in the greater good that have been the hallmarks of women’s leadership during the pandemic. These are the qualities that will help us address not only the next pandemic but also a future increasingly shaped by crises.
Early in the pandemic, several women leaders around the globe enacted swift policies to slow the spread of COVID-19, demonstrating decisiveness and rapid action. In late March 2020 when New Zealand went into lockdown, the country had only 102 COVID-19 cases and no deaths. At roughly the same time, the number of cases in the U.S. had surpassed 60,000. Though the U.S. had declared COVID-19 a national emergency on March 13, that declaration was followed by no clear, direct guidance to instruct Americans on how to slow the spread. States were left to figure it out on their own while millions of Americans fought over toilet paper in grocery stores across the country.
In the first months of the pandemic, the media was buzzing with talk about women leaders’ response. Devex, BBC News and the OECD each published articles on the topic. The media and other onlookers were impressed by the promising responses implemented by several women leaders including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan.
While we would not go as far as to claim that women leaders developed more effective responses to the coronavirus outbreak, it is important to look at the successful responses implemented in countries led by women and consider what it was that made them so.
According to a U.N. Women working paper, three trends characterized women’s leadership in the pandemic response: effective leadership, rapid response and socially inclusive policies. The paper claims that women leaders were particularly skilled in crisis management and communication, collaborative in their decision making, and careful to implement socially inclusive policies that addressed the pandemic’s social impacts.
Three trends characterized women’s leadership in the pandemic response: effective leadership, rapid response and socially inclusive policies.
One of the reigning factors of women’s leadership was the emphasis on collective responsibility and solidarity. They connected with their country’s people to address the pandemic’s social effects on the most vulnerable. Finland, Norway and New Zealand, for example, each held press conferences for children, answering their questions and noting their concerns. Going further, women leaders went beyond rhetoric and exemplified solidarity through their actions. Tsai Ing-Wen donated millions of masks to aid in the global coronavirus response. Jacinda Ardern and her ministers took a 20 percent pay cut for six months in solidarity with those who were economically impacted by the shutdowns. The Danish government, under Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, swiftly developed economic aid packages worth some $6 billion and froze the economy, allowing workers to receive a partial salary while staying home.
Women leaders across the globe demonstrated that non-patriarchal leadership can make all the difference. For example, President Zuzana Čaputová of Slovakia received national and international press for modeling mask-wearing as early as March 2020.
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde pardoned 4,000 prisoners in the beginning of the pandemic to prevent overcrowding and slow the spread. Sahle-Work also joined other world leaders in penning a letter to the United Nations calling for equitable vaccine access. Like other women leaders, Sahle-Work received media attention because early in the pandemic, her government managed to largely contain the spread of the virus in Ethiopia. As of February 2021, Ethiopia reported mortality rates of just two deaths per 100,000 people.
If we look beyond the scope of the pandemic, what else might we learn from women’s leadership?
What’s needed more than ever are leaders with empathy backed up by serious attention to the needs of the most vulnerable.
While the celebration of women’s leadership is important, it also reveals just how deeply entrenched patriarchal notions of leadership are. Demonstrations of solidarity and empathy should be expected from all leaders. Instead, many male leaders, including former President Trump, relied on war rhetoric and militarist responses when communicating about the virus. In avoiding this kind of rhetoric and communicating transparently, women leaders were seen as exceptional, and have, therefore, been glorified when these traits should be the norm.
As this crisis continues expanding into a socio-economic matter, the approach of women leaders serves as an example of how to go about creating sustainable transformation that lasts beyond the pandemic and reshapes not just the way the world views women leaders but our understanding of leadership more broadly.
In a future being shaped increasingly by climate change, the collapse of liberal democracies, growing inequality, pandemics and now a war in Eastern Europe, what’s needed more than ever are leaders with empathy backed up by serious attention to the needs of the most vulnerable—ones that can bring people together, in solidarity, during times of hardship and craft a set of socially inclusive policies that capture the complex and myriad impacts of crises.
We need not just more women, including diverse women leaders at the top but also more male leaders embracing the qualities that women leaders have exemplified throughout the pandemic. Nothing less than our future depends on it.
This article was originally published on March 15, 2022 in Ms.Magazine.