Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, various media have been taking it as a truism that countries led by women presidents or prime ministers have fared better than those led by men. As a result, public health officials and the electronic and printed media have praised the supposed gender-related influence on policies and strategies for reducing the harmful effects of the Coronavirus.
Now, researchers in the US and the UK – half of them women – have published an article in the respected scientific journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) One claiming that this “fact” was not proven. The article appeared under the title “Gender in the time of COVID-19: Evaluating national leadership and COVID-19 fatalities.”
Led by Dr. Leah Windsor and Dr. Reed Wood, the team examined this proposition by analyzing COVID-19-related deaths globally across many countries led by men and women. While they found some limited support for lower reported fatality rates in countries led by women, they not statistically significant. Country cultural values offer more substantive explanation for COVID-19 outcomes. We offer several potential explanations for the pervasive perception that countries led by women have fared better during the pandemic, including data selection bias and Western media bias that amplified the successes of women leaders in OECD countries.
Among the countries led by women are Belgium, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Iceland, Germany, Norway, Taiwan, Denmark, Finland, Myanmar and Bolivia.
“Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many have suggested that countries led by women have fared better than those led by men. This popular narrative has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Vox, the Harvard Business Review, Stanford Medicine and NBC News,” they wrote. “For example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s success in “flattening the curve” attracted initial attention and speculation about the role of leader gender in mitigating the deleterious effects of the pandemic. Iceland has garnered similar praise. Recently released scholarly analyses also suggest countries led by women have six times fewer deaths than those led by men.”
This “assigns women leaders traits such as good listening skills, the tendency to seek input and counsel for major decisions, the ability to provide a big-picture overview of a situation and proficiency in risk management. These traits would arguably make anyone better at managing crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and these traits are more commonly proscribed to women than in men,” they wrote.
The perspective that women have been better leaders during the pandemic is rooted in selection bias, based on the selective reporting of cases where women-led countries have succeeded in pandemic management, and are focused on OECD countries. These reports fail to acknowledge men-led countries that have done similarly well, while instead emphasizing carefully selected cases where men have not performed well, they wrote.
By focusing only on well-off OECD countries where democracies are over-represented, the team said, there was little consideration of pandemic management across varied regime types, including dictatorships. While democracies and highly developed countries tend to over-provide public goods, dictatorships such as China may have an “authoritarian advantage” in implementing comprehensive pandemic policies that limit the social, political, medical, and economic impacts of the virus. In addition, in authoritarian countries, there is more farming, and many people live farther apart than they would in an urban or industrial context and thus are less likely to be infected in a pandemic.
The researchers said the proposition failed to account for the underlying factors that bring women to national leadership in the first place and asserted that women “are able to attain national leadership positions in countries where core cultural values reward traits often found in women leaders, such a long-term orientation, a collectivist (rather than individualist) focus and fewer power disparities in society. These countries therefore have policy landscapes that enable leaders to consult with others and carefully weigh options, examine the larger policy/outcome picture of major decisions, and manage risk effectively. Women who lead these countries are able to successfully manage crises like the pandemic not because they are women, but because they are leading countries more likely to elect women to the highest executive office in the first place, and because those countries have policy landscapes and priorities that pre-dispose them to manage risk better.”
The team suggested that the gender of the national leader “does matter, but not necessarily in the ways highlighted by the current discussion. Public attention has focused on female chief executives, rather than the types of society-wide values and priorities that contextualize their leadership. Rather, we note that women-led countries are positioned to excel in many ways after the pandemic because of gendered policymaking incentives embodied in the national culture. Our work, therefore, extends the public discussion and prompts future investigations into important related questions regarding how women-led countries might fare better in the long term in ways such as economic recovery, unemployment, and poverty alleviation. We find that the interaction between having a woman as a country leader and having certain country-level cultural features that encourage the provision of public goods also provide more protection against dying from Covid-19.”
In addition, “critical to this debate is the fact that disaster outcomes are not merely dependent on leadership now, but also on the preparation that took place previously. Strong disaster-preparedness systems would have protocols in place for confronting threats such as a pandemic that today’s leaders need only activate, adapt, and implement, meaning that women leaders today will be better placed to manage pandemics if they can rely on preparedness and policies made by leaders in the past.
“It may seem puzzling that countries with more women in the legislature fare worse during the pandemic than those with fewer women.” But the team noted that women’s representation is related to gender quotas that many countries, especially in the developing world, have adopted after ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. In addition, women chief executives tend to govern smaller countries, both in terms of geographic and population sizes, than men.
Finally, perceptions of women’s successful leadership “may also be a product of Western news bias. …Few news outlets have covered Vietnam’s successes, notably zero Covid-19 fatalities as a result of swift, comprehensive action. It could be that countries with previous epidemic or pandemic experience, like Vietnam, are in a better position to anticipate and respond to the current pandemic.”
This study, the first to comprehensively address the roles of women leaders and women legislators in mitigating the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, found that there are no differences in reported fatalities between women-led and men-led countries. “However, it may be that we researchers are asking the wrong questions. Women chief executives pursue different policies from their male counterparts, and women in legislatures are less corrupt and more trustworthy, at least optically for constituents. Given the important role of countries’ cultural foundations, perhaps we should also be asking about long-term orientation, societal power disparities, and collectivist policies influence countries’ post-pandemic future trajectories. For example, will countries that have women chief executives and favorable cultural values fare better in the long term while dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19? And, will these countries have lower unemployment numbers, better re-opening plans, and less nationwide and individual economic damage?”