London – While many countries continue to grapple with escalating COVID-19 outbreaks, two have declared theirs effectively over: New Zealand and Iceland. It is no coincidence that both countries’ governments are led by women.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Icelandic counterpart, Katrin Jakobsdottir, have both received considerable — and well-deserved — praise for their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. But they are not alone: Of the top 10 best-performing countries (in terms of testing and mortality), four — Estonia, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan — have woman leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen have also been commended for their pandemic leadership.
Women account for less than 7 percent of the world’s leaders, so the fact that so many have distinguished themselves during the COVID-19 crisis is noteworthy. But that’s not all. Some of the worst-performing countries are led by unapologetically old-fashioned “men’s men.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s entire persona channels a retrograde masculinity and a patriarchal view of women. Accordingly, he has called the virus a “measly cold,” boasting that he “wouldn’t feel anything” if infected.
In the United Kingdom — which has recorded the most COVID-19 deaths in Europe — Prime Minister Boris Johnson also has a history of sexist comments. Like Bolsonaro, Johnson’s first instinct was to minimize the threat COVID-19 poses, though he changed his tune after being infected and ending up in an intensive care unit.
It’s the same story with U.S. President Donald Trump. A leader who came to power gloating about powerful men’s ability to assault women sexually — which he and his supporters dismissed as “locker room banter” — Trump has often worn his misogyny like a badge of honor. He, too, has consistently downplayed the COVID-19 crisis, focusing instead on “making China pay” for allowing the virus to spread beyond its borders.
Just as leaning into masculine stereotypes seems to correlate with poor pandemic responses, many observers seem to believe that woman leaders’ success may be rooted in their traditionally “feminine” qualities, such as empathy, compassion and willingness to collaborate. Forbes called Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s televised address to her country’s children an example of the “simple, humane innovations” that are possible under female leadership.
This reading is outdated, reductive and simply wrong. Trump and his ilk may act tough, but ultimately their leadership is an incompetent charade of bluster, vacillation and self-aggrandizement. High-performing female leaders, by contrast, have been resolute, assessed the evidence, heeded expert advice and acted decisively.
Following the mantra “go hard and go early,” Ardern imposed a strict lockdown four days before New Zealand’s first COVID-19 death. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen introduced more than a hundred public health measures in January — when the World Health Organization was still casting doubt on the possibility of human-to-human transmission.
If traditionally “feminine” traits don’t explain female leaders’ strong performance in times of crisis, what does? The answer may be related to the path women take to power, which is generally more demanding than that faced by men. In particular, it may be linked to the “glass cliff” phenomenon, whereby women are more likely than men to be appointed to leadership positions that are “risky and precarious.”
Research into the glass cliff began with the finding that, before appointing men to their boards, companies in the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index typically experienced stable share prices. Before appointing a woman, however, those same companies often experienced five months of poor share-price performance. Another study found that companies listed on the U.K. stock exchange tended to increase gender diversity on their boards after experiencing big losses.
A similar tendency can be seen in politics. Margaret Thatcher became leader of a Conservative Party in crisis and prime minister after a “winter of discontent.” Archival analysis of the 2005 U.K. general election found that female Conservative Party candidates tended to contest seats that would be significantly more difficult to win (judged according to their rival’s performance in the previous election).
Ardern also got her break by being thrust onto a glass cliff: She became the leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party in 2017 after poor polling forced her predecessor to resign. A mere two months later, she became the country’s youngest prime minister in 150 years.
According to the researchers, the glass cliff may appear because organizations are more willing to challenge the status quo when the status quo isn’t working. The visible difference of having a woman in charge could also reassure stakeholders that change is happening. As for the women, they may be more likely to accept leadership positions in times of crisis because they have fewer opportunities to reach the top. They can’t simply wait for an easier post to open up.
Regardless of why it happens, the fact is that by the time a woman reaches the heights of corporate or political power, she is likely to have overcome massive hurdles. With men, that is possible but far from guaranteed. Johnson (who was fired from multiple jobs for lying) and Trump (with his meticulously documented history of business failures, including several bankruptcies) never seem to run out of second chances. These leaders’ paths to power are characterized more by plush cushions than glass cliffs — and it shows.
While many factors are shaping outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership is undoubtedly one of the most important. It should surprise no one that, by and large, it is the leaders who have already had to prove themselves who are the most effective. That very often means they are women.
Raj Persaud is a London-based psychiatrist and the co-author, with Peter Bruggen, of "The Street-wise Guide to Getting the Best Mental Health Care." Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org