Will the Pandemic Reshape Notions of Female Leadership?

Female leader working at office

Countries with women in leadership have suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths from Covid-19 than countries with governments led by men.

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Avivah Wittenberg-Cox  For Harvard Business Review

Countries with women in leadership have suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths from Covid-19 than countries with governments led by men. Unsurprisingly, the media has swelled with stories of their pragmatism, prowess — and humanity. Will these positive outcomes influence our collective readiness to elect and promote more women into power?

In both business and politics, leaders of the world have spent the past few months facing a real-time leadership test, played out in the full view of an impatient global audience. A huge crisis, unlike anything seen in our lifetimes, renders experience and expertise irrelevant. Leaders today must learn to lockdown and reopen countries while walking the tightrope between balancing the health of their populations with that of their economies. Their evaluations will be as public as their performances. Instantaneous, global, social-media-documented scrutiny puts their every action and every communication in full view. Whatever the future brings, one thing is certain: those in charge will be judged on how they manage this crisis — and nowhere are the stakes higher than in government.

Heads of states are reluctant participants in this leadership contest, subjected to daily reviews of virus statistics, with journalists as judges. The best way to evaluate leaders’ performance has always been to look at how their teams and followers are performing, especially compared to others. But the pandemic and its grim count of death tolls introduces entirely new pressures: standardized, data-driven global metrics invite people everywhere to easily compare, at the click of a mouse, the relative effectiveness of their elected officials.

In this competition, few comments have received more attention than the stellar performance of female leaders. An avalanche of articles have highlighted the female-led countries managing the crisis better. It is claimed their superior performance reflects well-established gender differences in leadership potential. Numerous pieces have dug into individual strengths, celebrating Angela Merkel’s data-driven trustworthinessJacinda Ardern’s empathetic rationality, and Tsai Ing-wen’s quiet resilience.

We are aware of the (many) nuances and limitations of the data under debate. Generalizations stoking the “gender wars” are an easy way to attract popular debate and discussion. Many people have (very) strong opinions about whether women are managing the pandemic better, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions — but not to their own data.

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