Why female leaders are proving to be so effective in responding to the pandemic

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a joint video conference with French President Macron in Berlin, Germany, Monday, May 18, 2020. Photo: Associated Press
By Louise K. Davidson-Schmich

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a joint video conference with French President Macron in Berlin, Germany, Monday, May 18, 2020. Photo: Associated Press

Why female leaders are proving to be so effective in responding to the pandemic

By Louise K. Davidson-Schmich
Political science professor Louise K. Davidson-Schmich writes that women who received the most credit for their handling of the health crisis “sought to empathize with the public’s myriad concerns.”

In 2019, UN Women reported that a mere 5 percent of heads of government around the world were female. These handful of women have dominated headlines in 2020 when it comes to coverage praising national leaders’ handling of the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, is this a coincidence or are women really better leaders than men? The study of gender and politics offers (at least) three answers to this question.

1. Social norms make it easier for female leaders to deal with COVID-19 appropriately.

Male leaders face tough trade-offs governing during a time of pandemic. Psychologists have long shown that humans are socially punished for gender role incongruity, or displaying traits at odds with stereotypes of their gender. The current pandemic has created unprecedented health and economic challenges that bring with them a high degree of vulnerability, uncertainty, and emotional stress. The leaders who have been praised for their handling of the crisis are those who have admitted to their own personal and their citizens’ vulnerability to the virus, asked for expert scientific advice about dealing with an uncertain situation, and sought to empathize with the public’s myriad concerns. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was praised for her decision to self-isolate after being exposed to the virus by her doctor, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen was lauded for following the advice of medical professionals, and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg scored high marks for her reassuring press conference directed at children.

These female leaders may have felt confident in confessing vulnerability, asking for help, and sympathizing with others because these actions are all considered appropriate female behavior. Women, but not men, are socially rewarded when they perform these activities. In contrast, appearing invulnerable is a core tenant of masculinity; admitting they are susceptible to the virus is emasculating for men. Similarly, experimental studies show that male leaders who ask for help are perceived as being less competent than those who don’t ask for assistance—or women who do. This helps explain why even in low-stakes, everyday life, men are reluctant to ask for directions. Rather than earning positive headlines for declaring the tooth fairy an essential worker, male leaders would run the risk of ridicule for discussing issues of interest to their youngest constituents. Social norms make it easier for female leaders than male leaders to deal with COVID-19 in an appropriate manner.

2. It’s a matter of perception.

Another reason for the recent spate of headlines, however, may simply be the novelty of female leaders themselves. Many countries besides Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand and Merkel’s Germany, including Canada and South Korea, have received kudos for their handling of the pandemic but these states, like 90 percent of nations worldwide, are led by men. The ubiquity of male leadership worldwide renders Justin Trudeau and Moon Jae-in’s sex largely invisible to the public eye; reporters looking for a story are unlikely to seize upon these otherwise dissimilar leaders’ sex as an explanation for their actions. Contrast that to popular press comparisons between the female leaders of very different countries such as Iceland and Sint Maarten.   

The stark contrast between female leaders’ actions and those of a few, highly criticized, male heads of government may also be fueling the top marks women have earned. Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s attendance at large rallies while coughing and denying the severity of the virus that has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, President Donald Trump’s refusal to heed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and wear a mask, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s boasting of shaking hands with coronavirus patients after being told not to by his own scientific advisory group, all sharply diverge from Merkel and other female leaders’ conduct. Bolsonaro, Trump, and Johnson’s embrace of what is often referred to as toxic masculinity clearly highlights the dangers certain types of masculine behavior pose to citizens.

3. It’s not just the female leaders, it’s the countries they govern.

Many female leaders are well-poised to handle the current pandemic not only because of their gender, but because of the nature of the states they lead. Female heads of government are rarely the sole woman in their country to have obtained a position of power. They are often the tip of an iceberg of structures strengthening nations’ abilities to deal with a global pandemic. While women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population, today only 25 percent of legislators worldwide are women. In contrast, in the countries now led by women this figure rises to 36 percent—still not equal representation but much closer to parity. In half of these states, 40 percent or more of the legislative seats are filled by women. In such contexts, toxic masculinity is less likely to thrive than in places like Bolsonaro’s Brazil (where 85 percent of legislators are men) or among Republicans in the U.S. Congress (91 percent male).

When more women are represented in government, political science research finds significant differences in public policy. These differences stem from the pre-COVID-19 era and strengthen a state’s ability to respond to the current crisis. Around the world, where more women have entered into national legislatures, countries have spent more on health care; at the local level, too, female mayors have spent more on health care and social assistance than male mayors. Where women have been well represented in the legislative branch, countries have developed more robust welfare states that are not only well equipped to provide health care for the sick but also economic assistance to those who have lost their jobs, as well as time off from work for those who need to provide care. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that female leaders have been well-situated to guide their countries through the COVID-19 pandemic.

A longer version of this article first appeared in American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and can be found here.  https://www.aicgs.org/2020/05/why-have-women-world-leaders-performed-so-well-during-the-covid-19-crisis/

Louise K. Davidson-Schmich is a professor of political science at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences.