The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our perceptions around a variety of issues, including how we view women as leaders. There is some evidence — mostly from the Global North in countries such as New Zealand and Germany — that female leaders have handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than those led by men, such as the US or the UK. These media reports have led some analysts to conclude that women are better placed to lead during a crisis.
Given the work of our organisation, Accountability Lab, around accountability and transparency, we wanted to see if there have been similar studies to suggest women leaders have been less corrupt in the response to this pandemic. We couldn’t find any empirical studies specifically looking at women and corruption during the pandemic, but we did learn about some related issues that are worth noting.
Firstly, there’s been a clear bias in selectively using data from a few advanced countries to make sweeping generalisations about gender and leadership across the world. The media highlighted positive stories of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel, but did not report on the shortcomings of Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh, for instance. There have also been successful Covid-19 responses led by men, in countries such as Vietnam and South Korea.
In reporting on these countries, the gender of the leader is not necessarily emphasised. Such selection biases, while creating a positive narrative in women’s favour, perhaps miss the global context in which very few women are in actual decision-making positions and are often working with limited resources.
Ardern and Merkel do not need the spotlight: they are already known and respected internationally, irrespective of how they handle the current pandemic. We suggest that the focus should rather be on stories of grassroots women and their initiatives to fight the pandemic on different fronts.
Secondly, there is a need to re-evaluate the gendered approach used to answer some of these questions. Media reports were quick to use catchy headlines, but experts have cautioned against taking a simplistic approach to correlate gender and crisis response. It should also be noted that the media, which had highlighted the performance of women leaders, is now questioning the data.
Findings from women’s leadership in crisis; evaluating national leadership and Covid-19 fatalities; and women leaders and the overall pandemic performance highlight the context in which successful female leaders work. They come from countries with an enabling environment — most notably an existing democratic and inclusive society in which women have an equal voice in policy-making or a system in which different voices and perspectives are valued.
These positive stories from a handful of countries, however, should not divert from the main challenges women still face. Most countries do not value inclusive participation — the cabinet is composed of at least 50% women in only 14 countries, whereas there are only four countries in which the national legislature has women representation at least equal to that of men.
Ensuring women’s equal and meaningful participation — not just at the highest levels — will be the key to creating inclusive societies and more robust responses to crises. Such societies will automatically grant equal access and power to both men and women who value democratic processes.
The focus here should be on “meaningful participation” — inclusive participation has translated only into representation. Many countries, including South Africa, do not necessarily allow their women representatives — who make up 50% of the cabinet, 48% of the national legislature and 41% in local government — to have an equal voice in the political decision-making process.
This is highlighted by the reality that female leaders are also less likely to be trusted with influential ministerial portfolios. According to a UN report of 1 451 portfolios from 190 countries, 112 women hold portfolios in social welfare ministries, whereas only 25 hold portfolios in finance and budget.
Lastly, and most importantly, why should the gender of the leader matter? Are we setting different standards for women leaders compared to their male counterparts? Shouldn’t we be working towards a society where every leader, irrespective of their gender, is responsive and accountable to the needs of their people, especially during a crisis? It is important to applaud the work of any leader performing well, but by focusing specifically on women it seems we are putting additional pressure on them to perform better than men. As a result, female leaders are scrutinised more.
The pandemic and its consequences are still unfolding, and it would be misleading to hold women to a standard that, at times, is affected by multiple factors beyond their control. If, for instance, the economic consequences of the pandemic response are not favourable in a particular country led by a woman, are we then suggesting it is because the decisions were made by her?
As we’ve discovered throughout this pandemic, it is too soon to say who has actually led effectively. This should not be a competition and, if it were, there should be equal pressure on the men who are leading more than 180 countries through this crisis.