As insignificant as it may seem to apologists of patriarchal social structures, it is evident that at least during the first phase of the pandemic, nations governed by women have witnessed a lesser number of deaths. This is not to suggest that women inevitably become better leaders in situations of crisis. The challenge ranges from reforming labour markets to waging wars, but the observation is still worth contemplating over, nevertheless.
There is surely a risk in devising these kinds of conclusion even though they sound feminist, for they perpetuate the gender-stereotype that kindness is inherently a feminine trait, which goes on to strengthen the socially enforced gender-based roles that have more to do with our mindsets than biology, but in an age when presidents such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have gone berserk with their politics of toxic machismo, women seem to be treading the path during times of crisis with a lot more calmness and precision.
While Trump and Bolsonaro might be indulging in faux masculinity and denying the severity of the issue, Jessica Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, has been addressing people of her country via social media in a tone that is informal and yet reassuring and convincing.
Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, which has reported 264 deaths, told her country’s children that it is alright to feel scared during unprecedented times such as these. Such a response takes a person’s vulnerability into account while retaining their confidence and faith in the ability to tide through difficult times.
Perhaps more leaders should wield such empathetic approaches that acknowledge people’s apprehensions, fears and vulnerabilities and infuse faith in them without making them feel as if their pain is rendered unseen. Such an approach is more sensitive from the perspective of mental health too.
In a new global analysis, Supriya Garikipati at the University of Liverpool and Uma Kambhampati at the University of Reading have compared the 19 countries being led by women with their neighbours considering a cluster of influencers such as population, economy, gender equality, openness to travel, health expenditures and proportion of elderly people. They had to exclude Taiwan, a country run by a woman, from the research as it is not a member of the United Nations.
They reached an unequivocal conclusion. Countries governed by women literally suffered half as many deaths in comparison to the countries suffered by men. This is partly because female leaders ordered lockdowns much earlier, and “flattened the curves” of outbreaks in their countries. Ardern for instance, implemented a second round of lockdown in her country after a new cluster of cases had emerged following 100 days of no local transmission at all.
One possible reason, as many studies corroborate, is surely that women tend to be more risk-averse during such situations of crisis. But it is not simply a choice between more or less risk. It is also a choice between what to risk and what not to, and up to what extent. So the difference in the approaches of male and female leaders, as observed by the authors of this study, was that women took less number of risks with lives and more with the economy, and men took more number of risks with lives and less with the economy.
Of course, there comes a time when death and economic losses get intertwined together.
Women also, as per the observations, tend to communicate with people differently. For long, it has been hypothesized that men in positions of leadership tend to be more autocratic and directive, while women more often adopt democratic and participatory approaches to leadership. This conjecture has been hard to prove, but researchers are still examining the supposition that women bring more empathy in their decision-making process and accord due importance to emotional information while arriving at a conclusion.
Clearly, an interpersonal, empathetic, and participatory approach does more to heal distress and steer forth a nation during the trying times of a pandemic. This requires a leader to build and maintain a consensus that the threat anticipated or observed is indeed real, that sacrifice is vital to protect others, and that public health considerations deserve to be accorded a greater priority over individual liberties and privileges during times that are anything but normal.
Men who are still attracted to traditionally masculine approaches towards situations of crisis that seem to heighten anxiety with their unflinching narrative of heroism and do little to bring relief on the ground; might find such approaches built on empathy and consensus building difficult to imbibe.
Meanwhile, other more tolerant and progressive leaders, both female and male, could surely learn from such lessons and infuse more empathy in their approach. While individuality and talent trumps gender, and it is not to be assumed that all women leaders would be embodiments of sensitivity and temperance, a lesson could surely be taken from observations such as the ones evident during the first phase of this pandemic.