Women Leaders Faring Better Than Men—How COVID-19 Could Be a Revolutionary Opportunity for Women

By: Katie Wotherspoon

The coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down—but could this shift be an incredible opportunity for women? There are numerous COVID-19 concerns that disenfranchise women, yet there may be a glimmer of hope stemming from leaders who are successfully battling various COVID-19 concerns. Although women are disadvantaged by the coronavirus because of their gender, their stereotypical characteristics may establish women as exceptional leaders during this unprecedented pandemic.

Though men are more likely to die from the novel virus, women face a number of other dire issues due to the pandemic. For example, the majority of all essential workers are women.[1] A staggering 78% of social workers and 77% of health care workers are women.[2] Women also represent over half of the staff at grocery stores and fast food counters.[3] Thus, because women make up a large portion of essential workers, they are more likely to frequently be exposed to the virus.

Women’s increased susceptibility is not limited to their prominent role as essential workers, as women are also suffering financially due to the pandemic. Women of color, in particular, face a disproportionate job loss due to the recent spike in unemployment. Systemic oppression and gender discrimination are even more visible during a recession, due to intersectional oppression, which generates severe disparities in labor and wages.[4] Consequently, many women who work in restaurants, retail, cleaning services, and hotels have been hit particularly hard by the recession.[5] An estimated 25.4 million people lost their jobs in a matter of months—13.4 million were women.[6]

Women also face unique challenges outside the scope of employment. With millions of children at home due to school closures, women bear much of the burden of childcare. [7] Due to entrenched gender roles, women historically do the majority of caretaking around the world. In fact, 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work is performed by women globally. [8] This includes childrearing, housework, and caring for sick and elderly relatives, work that typically goes unnoticed due to gender-based expectations of household labor.

Even while the cards are stacked against women, this may be an opportune time for women leaders to shine. Women leaders are faring much better than their male counterparts.[9] Women have adopted an alternative style of governance that is substantially valuable. Women’s alternative leadership style is not only based in science, it is also thoughtful, risk-averse, and compassionate.  This style has been exceptionally successful in the fight against COVID-19.[10]In twenty-one countries, thirteen led by men and eight led by women, coronavirus-related deaths are 36 per million inhabitants in those led by women, compared to 214 per million in those led by men.[11]

Countries led by men have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Moreover, authoritarian leaning countries like the United States, Iran, Great Britain, and Brazil all have mortality rates of more than 150 per million inhabitants.[12] In comparison, countries that adhere to the alternative style utilized by many women leaders have had great success in controlling the virus. Women tend to lead in a way that is more inclusive and evidence-based. Thus, leaders who consulted public health experts and pursued those with an expertise in global calamities acted quickly, many of whom were women. Whereas countries with botched responses, many led by men, acted intransigently and were idly suspicious of experts.[13]

In contrast, women have led some of the most impressive control-campaigns in the world. Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has lower death rates than France, Britain, Spain, and Italy. Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland, has ten percent fewer deaths than neighboring Sweden. President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan has presided over one of the most effective containment movements in the world by focusing on testing, contract tracing, and isolation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been led an incredibly successful campaign, by eradicating, as opposed to controlling, COVID-19 outbreaks in New Zealand. [14] The children of New Zealand headed back to school in the middle of May, a far cry from some of even the best efforts in the U.S., such as California, which has not designated an official statewide restart date.[15]

It would be impractical to draw a definitive conclusion that women are better leaders when faced with a major pandemic because of a few extraordinary cases. Yet, these spectacular instances suggest women’s status as caretakers and essential laborers may play a critical role in their unique success. Women leaders have traditionally viewed public health as being vital to societal prosperity. Moreover, leaders who are women are often inclusive and focus immensely on communal utility, which could explain why they are excelling during this crisis. While women face many burdens on the frontline, the ability to lead cautiously while focusing on community and collaboration has certainly proved to be a strategy worth implementing.

[1] Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff, “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America, The New York Times (May 15, 2020 at 5:00 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/coronavirus-women-essential-workers.html .

[2] Robertson and Gebeloff, supra.  

[3] Robertson and Gebeloff, supra

[4] Robertson and Gebeloff, supra

[5] Christian Weller, “Women Hurt More Than Men In Recession, But It’s More Complicated Than That,” Forbes (May 15, 2020 4:35 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/christianweller/2020/05/12/women-hurt-more-than-men-in-the-recession-but-its-more-complicated-than-that/#761c47b43c1a

[6]  Weller, supra.

[7] Rosamond Hutt, “The coronavirus fallout may be worder for women then me. Here’s why,” World Economic Forum (May 15, 2020 at 4:40 PM),  https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/the-coronavirus-fallout-may-be-worse-for-women-than-men-heres-why/

[8] Mark Lowcock and Natalia Kanem, “Women are on the COVID-19 frontline—we must give them the support they need,” The Guardian (May 15, 2020 at 4:45 PM),  https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/commentisfree/2020/may/11/women-are-on-the-covid-19-frontline-we-must-give-them-the-support-they-need

[9]  Nicholas Kristof, “What the Pandemic Reveals About the Male Ego.” The New York Times (June 13, 2020 at 5:45 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/13/opinion/sunday/women-leaders-coronavirus.html?smid=tw-share

[10] Amanda Taub, “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better with COVID-19?” The New York Times (May 15, 2020 at 4:15 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-leaders.html

[11] Kristof, supra.

[12] Kristof, supra.

[13] Kristof, supra.

[14] Taub, supra.

[15] Channel News Asia (May 19, 2020 at 4:00 PM), https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/back-to-school-for-new-zealand-kids-after-covid-19-lockdown-12745136

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