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Female Leaders More Successful in this Crisis

Updated: May 2, 2020

Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.

The prime minister of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs, addressed her nation’s 41,500 people and gave two simple instructions: observe social distancing rules and don't go out unless you have to. It did the trick.

The Caribbean premier may not have the global profile of Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern, but her blunt message exemplified firm action, effective communication – and showed another female leader getting the job done.

From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan, women have managed the coronavirus crisis with aplomb. Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.

Ardern, New Zealand’s premier, chose to “go hard and go early” and has regularly broadcast empathetic “stay home, save lives” video messages from her sofa and communicated daily to her fellow kiwis, not through combative press conferences but rather through intimate Facebook Live videos, her favourite medium.

Her insistence on saving lives and her kindness-first approach – urging New Zealanders to look after their neighbours, take care of the vulnerable, and make sacrifices for the greater good – has won her many fans, while her emphasis on shared responsibility has united the country.

With a doctorate in quantum chemistry, Merkel’s clear, calm expositions – a clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind the government’s lockdown exit strategy was shared thousands of times online – have also helped propel public approval of the fourth-term chancellor’s handling of the crisis above 70%.

In nearby Denmark, meanwhile, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, acted equally firmly, closing the Scandinavian country’s borders as early as 13 March, and following up a few days later by shutting all kindergartens, schools and universities and banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

This early decisiveness appears to have spared Denmark the worst of the pandemic, and Frederiksen’s no-punches-pulled speeches and clear instructions to the nation have been widely praised. The Scandinavian country’s youngest-ever prime minister, whose approval ratings have doubled to more than 80%, has now begun easing its lockdown.

Norway has just begun relaxing its restrictions by reopening kindergartens. The prime minister, Erna Solberg, told CNN she had made a point of “letting scientists make the big medical decisions”, adding that she thought her country’s early lockdown and thorough testing programme had been key.

The world’s youngest head of government, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, also moved decisively to impose a strict lockdown, including a ban on all non-essential travel in and out of the Helsinki region. This has helped her country to keep the per-million toll 10 times lower than that of neighbouring Sweden.

Meanwhile, Iceland, under the prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s leadership, has offered free testing to all citizens, not only those with symptoms, and an exhaustive tracing system has meant the country has not had to close schools

In Asia, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen responded equally fast, activating the country’s central epidemic command centre in early January and introducing travel restrictions and quarantine measures. The country got so far ahead of the curve that it is now able to dispatch millions of face masks to the worst-struck parts of the US and Europe. Tsai’s warm, authoritative style has won her plaudits, even from political opponents.

Whatever conclusions we may draw from these leaders’ performances during the pandemic, experts caution that while women are “disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree” among countries managing the crisis well, dividing men and women heads of state and government into homogenous categories is not necessarily useful.

Complicating factors may be at play. Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, notes, for example, that women leaders are more likely to be elected in “a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government – and that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men. So you’ve already got a head start”.

In addition, it may be harder for men to escape “the way they are expected to behave” as leaders, Gerson told The Hill website. And since the very best leaders are both strong and decisive and capable of displaying feeling, women could, perhaps, “lead the way in showing that these are not competing and conflicting attributes, but complementary – and necessary for good leadership”, she said.

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