Opinion: What Makes the COVID-19 Responses from Women Leaders Superior?

There is an image circulating social media depicting seven heads of government, all of whom are women. The caption, reading, “Countries with the best coronavirus response all have one thing in common,” implies that, one, women leaders like Sanna Marin of Finland, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan are leading the most effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic; and women make for better political leaders than men. This begs the question, even when the world is not in the throes of a global pandemic, do women really make for better leaders than men? 

Women are not simply leading the better responses to COVID-19 just because they are women, but it does appear that women leaders have succeeded where their male counterparts have failed, suggesting that women deserve more trust and their leadership capabilities should not be discounted just because of their gender. 

People often consider women, chauvinistically, the weaker and more sensitive gender. Feminists have a long-standing tradition of reversing the connotations of these attributes. They point out that it is neither weak nor shameful to display a basic interest in forming salient connections with other human beings, respecting them, and treating them as equals, or generally showing emotions that hint at their vulnerability. If anything, such behavior only augments one’s level of humanity. 

In this current political climate in which toxic masculinity, indifference, ignorance, and radicalism reign, possessing compassion and empathy may be welcomed as a pleasant departure from the new norm of politics. This may make constituents more likely to identify with leaders who express such behavior, thus increasing the legitimacy of their regime. It would seem that if women naturally possess more of these human characteristics, then they would be less likely to infringe upon their citizens’ rights to life, liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

And so what of women leaders’ responses to the coronavirus? What does that tell us about their strength and capability of being at the helm of a nation? The image circulating social media is actually from a Forbes op-ed that details female leaders’ responses to the pandemic. 

The article notes how Prime Minister Merkel, a fierce advocate for early and prevalent testing, was quick to report all the facts of the virus, unlike how President Trump and President Xi Jinping of China have been presenting their data. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir also jumped on testing, offering free testing to all Iceland’s citizens. The article continues, mentioning President Ing-Wen’s willingness to send personal protective equipment to regions of the world with evident shortages, evident of her compassion, as well as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s decisiveness when it came to putting her country under lockdown to mitigate the spread of the virus. The author also writes that in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg developed a television program to explain the facts of the virus to younger Norwegians in an easily digestible, family-friendly manner. In America, that job is left to individual parents, teachers, and the writers of Sesame Street. 

Conversely, male leaders’ responses to COVID-19 have been less laudable. Iran’s top clerics and health minister downplayed the gravity of the situation in Iran until the outbreak was so bad they were forced to cancel their traditional Friday prayers. Besides politicizing and discounting the seriousness of the virus despite scientists’ warnings this was no run-of-the-mill flu, President Trump also suggested last Thursday that people blast themselves with ultraviolet radiation and ingest disinfectants to rid themselves of the virus. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro encouraged his citizens to disregard social distancing regulations. 

None of this is to say that women leaders do not also possess some of the less-than-desirable qualities in a leader. Women are susceptible to making mistakes and being ignorant. Women are certainly not angels; we are merely humans, the same species as men. 

But, at least in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, it really does seem like these women are doing something—check that, a lot of things—right. Their responses have been more swift, more compassionate, and better-organized than those of a lot of their male counterparts.

We won’t really have a decisive answer to our overall question about whether or not women really make better leaders, though the evidence seems to be pointing to the affirmative until more women are in positions of power so a valid comparison can be made. What is known is that no one will be a perfect leader. Based on my limited insight though, women’s track records warrant giving them a chance.