New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, has recently declared victory over the coronavirus, reporting almost zero new cases in the past few days. Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a much lower death rate than neighbouring states. Taiwan, led by Tsai Ing-wen, has been widely praised for having the best reaction to the coronavirus, having successfully controlled infections despite having close proximity to China. Finland, Norway and Iceland, which all have women prime ministers, have also maintained better control of the situation when compared to their neighbouring states.
Despite the geographic spread of these successful countries, and differences in cultural and political structures, these countries all share a common feature: women leaders.
A common characteristic of women leaders during this time is the compassion and personal connection they have shown to their citizens. Prime Minister Arden communicates daily with her citizens through Facebook live streams, where she answers questions from the public and urges them to stay home and save lives and protect the vulnerable. The personal connection she has built with her citizens allows her to better influence their decisions to follow social distancing guidelines. This may also be why public trust in her government is over 80%.
In Taiwan, instead of simply telling people to stay at home, Tsai Ing-wen’s government has incentivized the public to do so by offering food, goodie bags, stipends and video games. These measures show that the government empathizes with the daily implications of social distancing, and builds citizens’ trust in the government, making them more likely to follow government guidelines in the future.
Iceland has offered free testing to all its citizens, even though other countries of similar wealth have not done so. As a result, it is the country with the highest testing per capita – 100 per thousand citizens – and allows it to quarantine people with the virus before symptoms appear, resulting in lower transmission rates.
This is not to say that women are innately more compassionate or empathetic. Instead, traditional gender roles have celebrated these traits in women, while repressing others such as ambition, confidence and bluntness. The reverse is true of gender roles assigned to men, where compassion and empathy have often been seen as weakness in men. Since politics have long been dominated by men, male gender norms have been unfortunately absorbed into political tradition, and the idea of strong leadership.
For years, the ideal image of a successful leader has exempted the possibility of showing weakness and vulnerability – conforming to toxic ideals of masculinity. This has affected how many men leaders act, even during a pandemic when national structures are vulnerable. For example, President Trump refuses to wear a face mask in public, possibly in fear of appearing weak. This need to appear publicly strong and invincible means that men leaders are more reluctant to immediately enforce lockdowns because it would project an image of fear, and would show weakness against the virus.
Countries led by women, such as Germany and New Zealand initiated lockdowns in very early stages, as women leaders are perhaps less bound to traditional gendered ideals of what a leader should act like, allowing these countries to reduce the spread of the virus significantly.
Additionally, women leaders have shown a willingness to listen to both local and foreign experts and public health officials. For example, Germany used a range of information sources from different countries when deciding on its coronavirus policy, including evidence from South Korea’s testing and isolation programme. On the other hand, men-led countries, such as Sweden, have primarily relied on testing and advice from their own experts.
Women leaders seem to thrive by drawing from the strengths of prescribed gender roles – compassion, empathy and humility – while breaking away from toxic ideals of what a strong leader should look like. It is also possible that their awareness of gender tropes and prejudices against women leaders make them more cautious and thorough in choosing policies in comparison to other leaders.
For example, women were long excluded from leadership roles on the untrue basis that they are overly emotional and react explosively, making it much harder for women throughout history to achieve positions of leadership. When men politicians bluster and speak to evoke emotion, it is praised as being charismatic and confident, whereas when women leaders speak in the same way it is often judged by the public as being overly emotional or out of control. While women leaders are obviously not more emotional or less rational than men leaders, perhaps women who have are now in these leadership positions are conscious of these stereotypes and double standards and take more care to be logical and calm in their decision-making so that they are taken seriously by their peers and the public. This may explain why many women leaders have been much more logical in their policy decisions and when addressing the public than many men leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised by many for her calm and logical handling of a very stressful situation. When proposing Germany’s lockdown exit strategy, she considered and explained the science behind it, along with the need to be cautious during the process, instead of simply bragging about the country’s success against the virus, which would have had dangerous consequences. Along with this exit strategy, she also presented procedures that had to be followed if the country experienced a sudden resurgence of cases. Similarly, Tsai Ing-wen has been praised for her calm demeanour when presenting strategies and guidelines against the virus. These approaches, along with the positive results produced, may be why many women-led countries show high public trust ratings in the government.
Implications for Future Leaders
Overall, women leaders, at least in the above-mentioned countries, seem to have found a way to break through toxic gender roles, and create a new hybrid type of leader that is able to both show compassion and vulnerability, while also being calm and logical in their leadership. Combining all these characteristics will be beneficial and necessary even after we leave behind the covid-19 pandemic and face future challenges. It is important that more countries encourage women to enter and lead politics, and that men leaders work to defeat gender roles that force them to push down signs of vulnerability and compassion.
As a voting society, we play an important part in stopping gender roles and stereotypes onto politicians and encouraging them to do the best job possible without the weight of such toxic restriction.