Around globe, women leaders rise to the pandemic challenge

Why We Wrote This

A blend of decisiveness as well as empathy may be key to successful leadership – but so too is a political culture that values diverse voices. Part of our special 100th anniversary edition on women winning the right to vote.

Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen speaks in a Parliament room at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 6, 2020. When she took office in June 2019, she became her country's youngest prime minister.

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Calm, empathy, decisiveness: It’s been the winning common denominator among heads of state navigating the pandemic. Combining emotional sensitivity with straight talk, and listening to science to shift course as needed, this female leadership approach has spurred conversation on whether women have an edge when tackling the kind of chaos the coronavirus unleashed.

Yet many say their leaders’ successful stewardship is not the result of essential gender differences, but a reflection of robust democracies committed to gender equality. That commitment catapulted those leaders to the top in the first place but also gave them a chance to lead without being bound by gendered stereotypes.

Of course, leaders are individuals, says Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir, secretary-general of the feminist Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, which operates in the world’s No. 1 country for gender parity. But, she adds, “once we have women leaders, it’s a sign of progress that we have already made as a society in creating diverse leadership and diverse voices. Women tend to “lead with more emphasis on consensus, on working with other people.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen secured the trust and love of her people.

As Denmark entered one of Europe’s first lockdowns in mid-March, the nation’s youngest-ever prime minister sang ’80s pop while washing dishes in her kitchen on live TV.  

She held press conferences with children and sealed her stature as a caring leader by acknowledging the vulnerability of seniors as the country began easing restrictions.

“We are asking the weakest to be the strongest right now,” she told the nation. “And that is a tough request.”

Denmark is considered to have waged one of Europe’s most successful battles against the first wave of the coronavirus; it has recorded 616 deaths. But Ms. Frederiksen revealed in June that she hardly had the answers.

“I have never been in so much doubt in my life as I was this spring,” she said in a speech.

Yet her manner was calm and empathetic, and also decisive – the winning common denominator among female heads of state navigating the crisis. A century after American women won the right to vote, women represent just a fraction of the world’s leadership but a disproportionate number of those who tackled the virus swiftly and successfully.

Those who earned praise include New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and St. Maarten’s Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs. Their capacity to combine emotional sensitivity with straight talk, and to listen to science and shift course as needed, has spurred conversation globally on whether women have an edge when tackling the kind of chaos the pandemic unleashed.

But that discussion is not happening in Denmark – nor in other Nordic countries led by women. Instead, many in those nations have said their leaders’ successful stewardship is not the result of essential gender differences, but a reflection of robust democracies committed to gender equality. That commitment catapulted those leaders to the top in the first place but also gave them a chance to lead without being bound by gendered stereotypes.

Of course, the approach to leadership will reflect the individual leader, says Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir, secretary-general of the feminist Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, which operates in the world’s No. 1 country for gender parity. But, she adds, “once we have women leaders, it’s a sign of progress that we have already made as a society in creating diverse leadership and diverse voices.”

Women tend to “lead with more emphasis on consensus, on working with other people,” she says. “And this plays a part in how these women leaders have dealt with the [pandemic] and are leading it.” 

Few female heads of government

It’s hard to draw hard conclusions about gender because the sample size for female leadership is still so small, says Carlien Scheele, director of the European Institute for Gender Equality. Just over 10% of countries in the world are led by a woman today, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and only 15% in Europe.

Women who do overcome the hurdles to get to the top tend to be exceptional, experts say. And of course, not all women leaders were standard-setters during the pandemic. Belgium, led by a female prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, became a coronavirus hot spot in Europe.

Loren Elliott/Reuters
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became head of government in 2017. Ahead of a Sept. 19 election, opinion polls over the summer indicate strong support for her Labour Party.

But those who study leadership give high marks to the democratic and more participatory style of many women leaders. A 2019 analysis published in the Harvard Business Review showed women outscoring men on 17 of 19 leadership capabilities, including building relationships and inspiring and motivating others.

The media found the full embodiment of these attributes in Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand. She has been praised, for example, for getting on Facebook Live events to warmly encourage her fellow New Zealanders to act in ways that would flatten the infection curve and eradicate the virus. It worked: New Zealand went into lockdown with just nine deaths and has counted 22 to date.  

“In the face of the greatest threat to human health we have seen in over a century, Kiwis have quietly and collectively implemented a nationwide wall of defense,” she said.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, eschewed the war rhetoric expressed by many of her European peers as she patiently explained exponential infection rates to Germans. Nicknamed “Mutti” – Mother – during her 15 years in office, Ms. Merkel was able to draw her nation into accepting difficult lockdown measures.

In a fast-moving crisis like COVID-19, leadership requires a full range of human qualities, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University. And in countries with more gender equality, the stereotypes are not as rigidly set.

“Regardless of your gender, you’re probably going to be better able to respond to the anxieties in the culture and also to provide more vision about how to get out of it if you can express and act on both of those dynamics: decisiveness and strength, but also empathy and caring,” says Dr. Gerson.
“You need a leader who’s got the capacity to do that,” she says, “but you also need a political culture that will support that approach.”        

The Nordic countries

The female prime ministers of Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all succeeded in curbing the pandemic by enforcing strict lockdowns early that exacted a heavy economic cost but decreased threats to human life. Scientists were not always on their side, but initial results have reinforced the decision. That was a sentiment shared across Nordic countries excepting Sweden, which opted not to shut down and saw far worse results.

Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/Reuters
Norway’s prime minister and Conservative Party leader, Erna Solberg, learns greeting techniques from students Celine Busk and Rim Daniel Abraham in Oslo at a school reopening April 27, 2020. Ms. Solberg addressed questions about the pandemic during a child-centered TV news conference in March.

“These outcomes are striking because basically it means female leadership saves lives and it saves the economy,” says U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. “It saves jobs. It saves livelihoods.”      

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says these women leaders exhibited “moral clarity” and planted themselves firmly on the side of protecting as many lives as possible – despite criticism.

Lockdown “is not a cost-free exercise; people will suffer,” says Professor Sridhar. “You have to carry your population, which means you have to recognize that pain and that sacrifice.”   

Inclusion of voices

That underscores the need to build trust – something that Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir says often follows from having a greater diversity of viewpoints at the table. Ms. Gísladóttir was the director of the human rights arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for three years.

“When you look at countries doing well and where women are leading in the government, the common denominator is that these countries all have strong democratic systems and democratic culture,” she says.

That culture can also help leaders better recognize weak spots amid a crisis. Grete Herlofson, secretary-general of The Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association, says Norway put an immediate gender lens on the pandemic.

From the start of the pandemic the country, led by conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, recognized it was Norwegian women losing jobs, carrying the burden of care for older people and children, and at risk of domestic violence.

“Being a gender-equal country, we were able to see that the pandemic hit women harder than men,” says Ms. Herlofson. “More men died, but more women lost their jobs, more women had major domestic challenges. ... And we were able to have a discussion on that issue.”

That kind of awareness could benefit women as countries try to shape a new normal in a post-pandemic world. Just as American women gained suffrage at a time of global change after World War I, this crisis could be a steppingstone to greater gender equality on other fronts.        

Value of women’s work

In Iceland, which has led the globe in the demand for equal pay, feminists such as Ms. Ómarsdóttir are pushing a rethink about undervalued professions that are typically performed by women, such as nursing or elder care. The pandemic, she says, revealed the “true essential value of women’s work.”

Ms. Bhatia of U.N. Women is concerned that women and girls, especially in the developing world, will be disproportionately impoverished economically and educationally as a result of the pandemic, undermining the gains of the past 100 years.

But, she says, if the right lessons are drawn, this crisis could be a pivotal moment for women around the world. “It is feeling like the pandemic is a portal into a different future,” Ms. Bhatia says.

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