As the world appreciates New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s success in “flattening the curve”, a new study has revealed that countries led by women have not fared significantly better in the Covid-19 pandemic than those led by men.
While the researchers led by the University of Memphis in Tennessee in the US find some limited support for lower reported fatality rates in countries led by women, they are not statistically significant.
To reach this conclusion, they examine national-level data for 175 countries around the world, accounting for Covid-19 infection and death rates, cultural traits, gender parity in the national assembly, and whether each country is led by a woman or a man.
“In support of our argument, we find no statistically significant differences between Covid-19 fatality rates in countries run by women versus men unless we account for cultural factors,” said Leah C. Windsor from Department of Political Science, University of Memphis, in a paper published in the journal PLOS.
Specifically, they revealed that having a woman leader does not make a country fare better during the pandemic unless that country also has the cultural values that support female leadership.
“Given a position of leadership, women leaders are then better able to capitalise on particular cultural values than men, and more likely to turn those values into pandemic management successes than men leaders, while countries without those values fare worse, regardless of whether they are led by men or women”.
The study is the first to comprehensively address the roles of women leaders and women legislators in mitigating the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The theory of the political double bind helps explain why women leaders in countries like New Zealand, Iceland, Germany, and Taiwan have garnered ubiquitous praise for their leadership, as they are excelling at deploying both masculine and feminine leadership traits during the pandemic,” the authors noted.
It is important to note that while some women chief executives have shown impressive governance during the Covid-19 crisis, this has not translated to statistically significant differences in decreasing the number of cases or deaths in their countries.
Early in the pandemic, for example, Belgium — then led by Sophie Wilmes — reported high numbers of Covid-19-related fatalities, in part because they were including deaths in nursing homes and suspected deaths as part of their official count.
“It is possible that this inclusiveness, ensuring that every death counted and mattered, itself was a culturally relevant phenomenon and that leader gender amplified it,” the study noted.
The number of women in parliament did not provide protections either.
“These results need further disentangling, and suggest that we need to rethink our metrics about what success in the pandemic means, and which exemplars we should be following,” the authors noted.
The work suggests that leader gender does matter, but not necessarily in the ways highlighted by the current discussion.
Public attention has focused on female chief executives, rather than the types of society-wide values and priorities that contextualise their leadership
“We find that the interaction between having a woman as a country leader and having certain country-level cultural features that encourage provision of public goods also provide more protection against dying from Covid-19,” the authors explained.