What We Can Learn from the Women Leading During the COVID-19 Pandemic

|Megan Sieroka|

The COVID-19 pandemic has invoked a revealing test of global leadership. When looking for successful leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic, six countries stand out in particular. The women leading New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Taiwan, and Norway have demonstrated how early lockdowns and strong communication can flatten the curve. These results suggest a strong correlation between successful pandemic plans and women in political leadership. 

While there are more women heads of state across the globe than ever before, there is still a long way to go to achieve equal gender representation in politics. This article will analyze the strategies that women-led countries implemented that put them at the forefront of pandemic recovery.

Often, women take on a relational leadership style, rather than the command-and-control tactics more typical of their male counterparts. Throughout the pandemic, many countries led by men tended to rely on fear-mongering tactics. A study conducted by Sara Dada et al. examined 122 speeches made by political leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that, by and large, men focused on fear, while women focused on people. Similarly, male leaders often used war analogies to motivate compliance with public health restrictions, whereas women were more likely to reach out to constituents through empathy. 

Further to this, women leaders relied starkly on facts, which was most evident during press conferences. For example, in March 2020, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany,  warned citizens that COVID-19 could affect up to 70 percent of the population. She calmly relayed critical information about COVID-19 from Germany’s top health experts. By contrast, Donald Trump’s tactic to downplay the virus proved ineffective. However, states with female governors in the United States had fewer COVID-19 related deaths in contrast to states run by male governors. A study conducted by Sergent and Stajkovic demonstrated that female governors implemented earlier state-at-home orders, and conveyed more confidence and empathy during public briefings.

The women leading the six countries listed above reacted quickly to the COVID-19 virus with early and decisive pandemic plans. With the emergence of the global pandemic in March of 2020, these six countries imposed strict lockdown measures country-wide. Nearly 5 percent of Finland had been tested for COVID-19 by March 2020. Moreover, Germany established “Corona Taxis” for COVID-19 patients across Heidelberg. The “Corona Taxis” project was led by doctors, nurses, and employees from the health department, and the vehicles were equipped with protective equipment and various medical materials. This strategy counteracted the poor conditions of Heidelberg’s clinics and low intensive care capacity. 

The use of technology was instrumental to COVID-19 recovery. Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland, used social media influencers to spread critical COVID-19 information across the country. PING Helsinki, a digital marketing company in Finland, would edit the government’s messages into social media-friendly formats before release. Marin’s plan recognized the power of social media to reach young people, who receive the majority of their news via digital platforms. Around 64 percent of young people in Finland prefer to receive their news from apps and websites online. Inari Fernandez, a Finnish social media influencer, stated that the use of social media influencers to spread critical information was “an honour”. Despite the far-reaching success of this strategy, it was not widely replicated abroad.

Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, also recognized the power of technology to spread vital information about the pandemic. Ing-wen enforced strict measures to dissuade the spread of disinformation about the pandemic, including a maximum fine of three years in prison and NT$3 million for non-compliance. As of May 2021, Taiwan has reported a total of 12 deaths due to COVID-19.

Rather than relying on fear-mongering or other authoritative tactics, women tend to lead with compassion. For example, Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, sat down in her sweatpants for a Facebook live to “check in” with citizens in March 2020. Citizens tuned in while Arden described the new lockdown measures and sympathized with viewers. Her approach is validated by the norm of reciprocity, which describes how citizens are more likely to comply with government restrictions when they feel empathy from their elected representatives. Despite critics abroad, national pride in New Zealand rose significantly following the lockdown measures. Sanna Marin, Jacinda Arden, and Tsai Ing-wen all harnessed technology to help combat COVID-19.

Despite the ascent of women in leadership, gender stereotypes also continue to rise. Common stereotypes of female leadership include sensitivity, warmth, and understanding. While these stereotypes are not necessarily negative, they make it difficult for women to be perceived as capable leaders. Women are expected to be relational, inclusive, and community-oriented — common characteristics correlated with motherhood. Their male counterparts are not expected to express the same characteristics.

Women must also overcome culturally masculine stereotypes of leadership. The success of these six women throughout the pandemic challenges the “think manager, think male” stereotype which prevails across cultures. Portraying leaders as authoritative, masculine, and charismatic, wrongly constrains the definition of an effective leader. Not all male leaders fit into this box, as demonstrated by Joe Biden, who leads with a relational leadership style.

This article by no means argues that women are inherently better leaders in crisis. Alternatively, the facts illustrate how differences in leadership styles have drastically swayed the outcomes of the pandemic. Rather than training women to embody the leadership characteristics of their male counterparts, or approaching leadership through a “gender blind” lens, we should embrace the benefits that a relational leadership style can bring.

All leaders can learn from the successful and decisive leadership and pandemic plans employed by the women leading New Zealand, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, and Norway. The success of women leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic challenges the masculine-feminine paradigm of leadership in politics. It is time to embrace new forms of leadership and get more women elected.

Written by Megan Sieroka, Queen’s 2021 Graduate with a major in Global Development Studies