By Stephanie Horsford and Molly Jerlström

The COVID-19 pandemic is repeatedly referred to as a war. But it isn’t a war, it’s a race. A marathon. And so far, the approaches shown by women leaders have been more effective, with their mindful and caring responses to the health crisis positioning them in the front of the pack. 

As the crisis expands into a socio-economic one, the approach of women leaders could potentially be the start of a sustainable transformation that lasts beyond this crisis and in the long run even topples the patriarchal structure.

Clear communication and emotional intelligence

The approaches taken by a number of women leaders have so far avoided the rhetoric and form of a militarist response. Instead, they have put forward strategies based on communication that is transparent and mindful of their population.

For example, the women leaders of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand all held press conferences for the youngest members of society, answering questions such as “Can I still have a birthday party?” and “When can we visit our grandparents?”.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel held a press conference clearly explaining the COVID-19 transmission process, and the corresponding steps for the exit strategy based on science.

The Prime Minister of Sint Maarten Silveria Jacobs spoke directly to the population, giving simple, explicit instructions: “If you do not have the type of bread you like in your house, eat crackers. If you do not have bread, eat cereal, eat oats, sardines.”

Transforming words into reality

This adaptiveness and emotional intelligence have also been coupled with rapid, effective and clear strategies. Both Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, and Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, took the lead early on by rapidly deciding to shut their country’s borders. In both countries, this has resulted in very low rates of infection, and minimal deaths

Looking at the low death rates and slow spread of the virus in countries led by women, the approaches taken seem to have been effective. However, caring for the population during a health crisis requires more than just having low mortality rates. Actually keeping your word is equally important – and these leaders not only showed solidarity in their communications but also proved to be considerate and humane in their actions. 

Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, donated huge quantities of face masks and medical equipment to other countries. In New Zealand, Ardern didn’t just talk the talk by encouraging solidarity within communities. She and her ministers walked the walk and took a 20% pay cut for six months as a show of support for people affected by the economic disruption of COVID-19. 

At the outset of the country’s lockdown, Denmark’s government took the decision to freeze the economy. This strategy consists of paying workers 75% of their salary while they stay at home. The Danish government also developed a number of economic aid packages for companies, independent contractors, and cultural institutions. 

These are expressions of solidarity that should be logical and natural for all leaders. But since they are a rarity rather than a reality, the solidarity is inappropriately glorified when compared to the war-response shown by so many other leaders.

The differences have been exposed

The pandemic has revealed the strengths of approaches that have been taken by mainly women leaders, as well as the shortcomings of responses taken by some men leaders. Approaches from women leaders have been effective and realistic, focusing on being upfront and considerate, without downplaying the reality of the crisis.   

At the same time, many male leaders have stuck to rhetoric rather than reality. In the early stages of the crisis, many men leaders declared a war on the pandemic and spoke of heroism and sacrifice, as if a virus could be overcome through courage alone. This approach has tended to incite both fear and uncertainty – leading to nothing but the hoarding of canned goods and toilet paper.

Identifying the problem of patriarchy

In an ideal world, everyone would be just as likely to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with solidarity and care, reflecting reality rather than an imagined war against an invisible enemy. This focus will be even more important going forward as the impact of the socio-economic crisis following the pandemic grows. 

But the patriarchal system prevents this vision from becoming reality. Its structures reinforce gender-based stereotypes, including that men take the lead and govern the crisis with a strong hand and that women should be carers, in part illuminated by the fact that 70% of health care staff worldwide are women.

The context behind the success

The patriarchy is the root cause of these gender-based stereotypes, and these in turn lead to different expectations of leaders based on their gender. This structure needs to be fully understood in order to be taken down. Using gendered expectations is an oversimplified way to explain successful or unsuccessful leadership, in addition to being insufficient and misleading.

There is much more to it, as the socio-cultural context within which they act affects both the leaders and the outcome of their political actions. This context includes how stark the inequalities are, how fragmented the social and cultural realities are, and how much importance is placed on people’s wellbeing.

Understanding how the patriarchal structure and the socio-cultural context affect leadership can help us visualise environments where a non-patriarchal structure can flourish. In an ideal world, the socio-cultural context would promote a reasonable response to any given crisis without any gendered expectations on leaders’ behaviour.

However, this is not the case today. The socio-cultural context that encourages a more humane and caring response from certain genders only (women) is in no way gender-neutral, but permeated by patriarchy. This makes leaders a product of the gendered expectations forced upon them. Women leaders are not expected to act like men leaders, and therefore they have the opportunity to behave differently, although they are still limited by gendered expectations.

A window of opportunity for change

A successful response to the pandemic needs to be realistic, humane, and based on solidarity. This pandemic has opened a window of opportunity to weaken the structures of the patriarchal system that expects a toxic and unrealistic response based on war rhetoric. Now is the time for change, as societies confront an enduring public health emergency and massive socio-economic hardship. 

The differences in leadership styles have been exposed. We need leaders with humane and caring characteristics if we want to see a more equitable future where vaccines are shared across borders and vulnerable populations are supported. 

So far, non-militaristic approaches based on solidarity, empathy and humanity have shown to be the best way forward. It is now time to abandon nonsensical gender stereotypes and focus on the best response to an unprecedented crisis.