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Images courtesy of The Lancet, The Independent, TIME and Regjeringen.no
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for political leaders across the globe. Amongst those countries praised for responding quickly and effectively, a large number coincidentally led by women, namely New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Whilst many will argue that gender is irrelevant to the success of the leaders of these nations, it is certainly an intriguing correlation that raises questions about women in power. Are women better leaders than men during a crisis, or is this merely a coincidence? Are they underrepresented in general?
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is one female Prime Minister who has triumphantly emerged as a paragon of firm leadership during this pandemic. She closed borders before any cases had even been confirmed in New Zealand and sent the country into lockdown after a minimal number of cases were declared. Her quick thinking and decisive actions have been crucial in slowing the spread of the virus in New Zealand to a daily growth rate of lower than 1%, and consequently helping to protect her nation.
Ardern has also become a figurehead for working mothers during this time. From hosting Q&As dressed in a scruffy sweatshirt having just put her daughter to bed, to conducting briefings with child’s toys visible in the background, she has emerged as a role model for the multitude of parents across the globe struggling with working from home and maintaining a happy family life.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also been praised for her leadership, and her refusal to downplay the seriousness of the situation is a technique that her male counterparts ought to emulate. Putting her chemistry background to excellent use, the Chancellor has communicated messages to her nation with clarity and scientific candour. In stark contrast, US President Donald Trump has been mocked for his recent suggestion that the virus could be cured by injecting disinfectant into patients. His remarks sparked a rise in calls to the emergency services regarding improper disinfectant use, confirming the need for politicians to be well-informed when addressing matters of public health. Whilst the geography of the USA is no doubt the main cause of the country’s large number of deaths, Trump could nonetheless learn from Merkel’s informed and considered leadership style.
Meanwhile in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg has hosted a press conference exclusively for children, acknowledging the anxiety that this unprecedented situation could be inducing in young people. At a time when thousands are dying, schools and businesses have closed, and health services are facing immense pressures, many people are understandably concerned about the safety of their loved ones and the future of the economy. The empathetic approach of female leaders like Solberg validates these feelings, as well as helping to alleviate fear. Solberg’s demonstration of empathy and understanding should be a lesson for male leaders like Trump and Boris Johnson, whose messages to the nation have at times neglected genuine compassion.
It would be wrong to suggest that female leaders have been so successful at this time simply because they are women; this is a viewpoint that plays into the sexist stereotypes that suggest certain patterns of behaviour are inherently gendered. Nonetheless, it is the traditionally ‘feminine’ traits previously criticised in female leaders that have proved a godsend during the pandemic. If a lesson is to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it should be that we must stop insisting that women act like men in order to be good leaders. With qualities like empathy, decisiveness, relatability and clarity, the likes of Ardern and Merkel have proved once and for all that women can be equally as capable of leading as their male counterparts.