Women Lead in Time of Crisis

Jon Henley and Eleanor Ainge Roy, writing in The Guardian Weekly (1/5/20), asked whether female leaders were better at containing the spread of Covid-19. (<ahref=”https://www.theguardian.com/…/why-do-female-leaders-seem-to-be-more- successful-at-managing-the-coronavirus-crisis”>) They reviewed female leader’s responses to Covid-19: nine women who took charge of the response to the contagion. Sint Maarten, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, Norway, Finland and Iceland led by female heads of state acted promptly to manage the virus, thereby containing the spread. South Korea’s, head of disease control, Jeong Eun-kyeong, was delegated to take charge of that country’s response.

This is not an argument about men versus women but rather poses the question: what qualities do we need in leaders, particularly in a crisis? Male leaders, for instance Cyril Ramposa (South Africa), Daniel Andrews (Premier of Victoria, Australia), Moon Jae-in (South Korea) were also effective by taking similar prompt,
definitive action.

Leadership has been described by Martin Charmers () as a process of social influence of which credibility and authority are vital factors. The leader emerges as a result of being seen as competent and trustworthy, allowing the group to achieve its goal. Is political leadership any different? There is no doubt that the majority of US Americans do not see their leader as competent or trustworthy, but his party does as do his supporters. Modern political leadership appears to work on the basis of casting their opposition as incompetent and untrustworthy offering few ideas beyond this scenario, which might explain why so many electorates are despondent and pessimistic about their country’s leadership and are increasingly disengaged from the political debate and process. The most effective leaders motivate their followers, ensuring team satisfaction,participation and commitment to the task at hand. They therefore need to be effective coaches, be considerate and sympathetic and, importantly, communicate the group goals well.

In managing Covid-19 there was a clear goal: reduce the risk of infection within a population in order to minimise deaths among the vulnerable. Rarely are political leaders confronted with such a discreet goal.What made female-led countries so effective in achieving this goal?

Looking at the data reported on from which Wikipedia draws its information, prompt action has been shown to be the most effective tool in containing the viral spread.

On 31 March, Sint Maarten (population 41,500), a tourist attraction in the Caribbean, reported on its website six cases of Covid-19 and a peak of 13 a day on 17 April. On the 13 May they had brought the infection down to 15 compared to 46 on 21 April. On the 1 April Silveria Jacobs, Sint Maarten’s Prime Minister said in a public address: “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.” It was a clear blunt message: don’t go out and the pause between the words eat and sardines carried a very human, urgent message: be resourceful.

Taiwan (population 23.78m) under Tsai Ing-wen was also quick to act, introducing travel restrictions and quarantine measures in early January. Adopting 124 control and contain measures allowed Taiwan’s commerce to remain open. Her first action was to screen all passengers arriving from Wuhan and place them in quarantine. She then activated the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to co-ordinate vulnerable ministries: transport, economics, labour and education. The CDC reported regularly to the public. On the 31 March there were 656 confirmed cases. The peak was on the 19 April (1638 confirmed cases). Since the 1st May only one new case has been confirmed, a woman returning home from Qatar. Taiwan is now sending masks to the USA and Europe.

Neither Taiwan nor Sint Maarten are members of the WHO and therefore are not included in its reporting. Both countries’ websites are very informative.

Angela Merkel continues to lead Germany calmly and authoritatively through the pandemic. A waning popularity has waxed to an approval rate of over 70%. Merkel has a degree on quantum chemistry and has used her sound understanding of science to explain to Germans the scientific basis behind her government’s response. With a population of 83.02m Germany peaked on 3 April with 6,174 confirmed cases. On the 13 May the number had reduced to 798.

A popular myth is that women leaders tend to be more feeling-oriented and less task-focused that their male counterparts. However, research evidence does not support this proposition. What research shows is that women leaders tend to be focused on group achievement rather than personal achievement and advancement. Is this what allowed Denmark’s Mette Fredericksen, who closed the borders on 13 March, to post a clip of her doing the dishes while joining a TV singalong, or Jacinta Ardern to deliver sympathetic messages from her couch during lockdown? Quite apart from wondering whether male leaders would be slouching on a couch while addressing their constituents or washing the dishes, do these domestic scenes carry a message that we can all pull together, to quote Silveria Jacobs to “Simply. Stop. Moving.”

Another female leader, Kerala’s Health Minister, KK Shailaja, acted quickly and decisively on hearing of the Corona virus in Wuhan and its rapid contagion. Managing the health of a state of 35 million she has contained the virus to 600 confirmed cases. She did not wait for the first declaration of a confirmed case but anticipated proactive action of test, trace, isolate and support. In the past, when the deadlier virus, Nipah, hit Kerala, she demonstrated her concern visiting hard hit villages and reassuring their populations and helping them understand how to contain it. She has also been an architect of a decentralised network of health centres and hospitals, which has further helped to contain the spread of Covid-19.

There are four pillars to transformative leadership: setting high goals and expressing confidence in followers; inspirational motivation using symbols and emotional appeals; intellectual stimulation by encouraging followers to think in novel and creative ways and individual motivation such as addressing individual needs.

Research investigating leadership styles show that women score particularly high on motivation scales. They are more likely than men to demonstrate co-operation and endorse social values that promote welfare in others.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was very reluctant to take decisive action. For some time the message he sent was that the economy was more important than health. Finally he appeared to realise that perhaps his Chief Medical Officer (MDO) should be taking a greater role in communicating but he still managed to muddy some of the waters. When debate about opening schools was running, the message from the MDO was that it was okay to phase in school return, much to the delight of parents, particularly working mothers juggling children, home-schooling, employment demands along with the usual domestic responsibilities. Morrison’s message was that people should follow the advice of the MDO. However, he would not be sending his children back into their classrooms. Which of the four pillars of leadership did he meet in this instance?

Responsibility for leadership on Covid-19 in South Korea, led by Moon Jae-in, was placed in the hands of his head of Centre for Disease Control, Jeong Eun-Kyeong. His Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha reports the results and her message is unequivocal: the virus will be around for a long time so the rigorous test-trace-contain measures will continue for as long as it needs.

Delegation of responsibility to appropriate people helps to clarify and communicate goals. Erna Sternberg, Norway’s Prime Minister, has said that there is no one better than the scientists to advise on the important decisions in leading the country’s response to the pandemic.

Women’s tendency towards transformative leadership style allows for greater effectiveness. So why do we not have more women leaders or males that share that style rather than the combative, ego-centric, usually male, leaders? Is it that we adhere to stereotypical thinking that men take charge and women take care? Or is it the double-bind that women often find themselves in: highly feminine women are scrutinised and criticised because they are too feminine while masculine women are regarded as not being feminine enough? Women are penalised for promoting themselves, expressing anger or ambition. Why are not those men who demonstrate a transformative leadership style, not accused of too much femininity? There is a double standard that prevents us from electing leaders that we need for a future that is likely to be more chaotic and dangerous. We need to take the plunge and look to leaders that communicate clearly, delegate appropriately, honour and respect their followers and put faith in people’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and resilience.

In short we need those transformative leaders to mentor future leaders so that we can all survive not just this crisis, but those of the future. And we need to believe in women, their sympathy, their collaboration, their inspiration. They have proven themselves just as focused and decisive as their male counterparts without sacrificing the four pillars of leadership.

Women tend to be elected to lead governments in those countries that have confidence and trust in their leaders. Can we, given that bombastic, ego-centric, usually male leaders are elected in countries where the electorate is disenchanted and disconnected further eroding trust and confidence ignore transformative leaders? Can we be courageous enough to elect leaders that are sympathetic, communicative and consultative as well as focused and decisive? Or, post Covid-19 crisis, will we continue with the same old?

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