The pandemic has seemed to exacerbate identity politics, as I’ve now seen many articles on the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on minorities (true), the fact that this reflects structural racism (dubious), and now at least six articles on how the countries that are doing better in fighting the pandemic are those run by women (I haven’t done the stats, but certainly women-led countries seem to be among the best responders).
Here are three article on the latter issue: one from the increasingly woke New York Times, one from The Hill and one from Forbes (click on the screenshots to read). They offer a consistent thesis—female leadership has made a difference—but advance different possible reasons.
The underlying thesis of these articles, as I take it from most of the writing, is that women have characteristics that make them better leaders in a situation like this. Evaluating this thesis, one has to ask four questions:
1.) Is it true that countries with women leaders have done better than those with men leaders in fighting the coronavirus? That requires some kind of statistical analysis, for the analyses focus primarily on seven countries with female heads of state: Taiwan, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland. And indeed, these countries have done better in fighting the virus than many others led by men. But there are other countries led by women as well, which are omitted from the analysis. Ideally, you’d want to do a rank order correlation between some measure of successful mitigation of the pandemic with whether the countries are led by women. Sadly, there are only 29 women-led countries in the world, and many have no data on coronavirus response.
But I would guess that yes, the countries above did do better than male-led countries. Note, though, that four of the seven are Scandinavian and two are islands. This leads to the question about whether it’s the not qualities of the leaders themselves, but the geographical situation, which in the case of the small countries Iceland, New Zealand, and Taiwan, makes control easier, or whether the culture of those countries simultaneously is more receptive to women leaders and to a good governmental response to the virus, which might be the case in Scandinavia (see #2).
It’s curious that the NYT says we shouldn’t draw conclusions from a small sample, but then does so, concluding that women politicians are able to violate expected gender norms (aggression, etc.) more easily, being more “caring and thoughtful”; and that that kind of leadership can be really beneficial in situations like this one. Here’s their caveat which they then proceed to violate.
We should resist drawing conclusions about women leaders from a few exceptional individuals acting in exceptional circumstances. But experts say that the women’s success may still offer valuable lessons about what can help countries weather not just this crisis, but others in the future.
2.) (related to the above). Do countries with a propensity to elect women leaders also tend to have social policies that were more useful in combating coronavirus? This is a plausible alternative hypothesis to singling out characteristics of women themselves. The New York Times, for example, floats the hypothesis that countries that are more diverse are more able to draw on different useful sources of advice (this is different from saying that women themselves are more willing to seek useful outside counsel, which we consider below):
Varied information sources, and leaders with the humility to listen to outside voices, are crucial for successful pandemic response, Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, wrote in an op-ed in the British Medical Journal. “The only way to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots is to ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are made,” she wrote.
Having a female leader is one signal that people of diverse backgrounds — and thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives on how to combat crises — are able to win seats at that table. In Germany, for instance, Ms. Merkel’s government considered a variety of different information sources in developing its coronavirus policy, including epidemiological models; data from medical providers; and evidence from South Korea’s successful program of testing and isolation. As a result, the country has achieved a coronavirus death rate that is dramatically lower than those of other Western European countries.
3.) Women leaders themselves have qualities different from those of male leaders, and these qualities have led them to be more successful in fighting the pandemic.
If the answer to this question is “yes”—and all the articles I’ve seen have tentatively settled on this answer—then there are two subquestions.
a. Do women have the better skills for this because of cultural influences (i.e., socialization/acculturation)?
b. Do women have better skills for this because their genetics (and evolution) have given them a propensity to behave differently from men?
Blank slaters (those Lefties who tend to adhere to a “yes” answer for question #3) would go for answer a.). Women have those skills, they’d argue, because they are acculturated or socialized to behave in certain ways. Although I believe that men and women have different personalities and ways of approaching problems because of their genes, that answer is anathema to those who think there are any hard-wired differences promoting different behaviors (or brain organization) in men versus women. To such people, admitting genetic differences between the sexes promotes sexism (it of course need not do so), so they resist the considerable scientific evidence for hard-wired behavioral differences because it supposedly leads to an ideological conclusion they don’t like. (One bit of evidence: the effects of testosterone.)
But I digress; I’ve said all this before. To answer the question, I’ll note that yes, I think women and men have different leadership styles, though this is based on my anecdotal observation. Women are less aggressive, more empathic, and more willing to seek a consensus. Throughout my life some of my best friends—of the nonromantic genre—have been women. If I have a problem, for instance, the usual response of a male friend is to try to find a solution: “Do X”. Women, on the other hand, tend to listen and ask questions, without immediately telling you what to do. And many times it’s better to hear someone tell you they understand rather than tell you what to do. For you won’t follow advice unless you’ve more or less decided on it already.
I also think these differences are at least in part genetic. Men, I believe, have evolved to be more aggressive: to compete with other males (once for women, now for status and jobs), and to have a ‘take-charge’ attitude. I see this in my graduate seminars, where women student are more likely to seek consensus and less likely to interrupt, while males are more aggressive and often try to take credit for an idea that a woman has already proposed.
This suggests, but does not of course prove, that women would be more likely to gather a diversity of opinions from outside sources in times of pandemics. To judge that, you’d have to actually look what the different governments and leaders did. You can make anecdotal arguments that women like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern (a terrific leader) did seek more outside counsel, but I’d like documentation rather than anecdotes.
4.) If men and women do have different leadership styles, did those styles really better help them curb the pandemic? Yes, women could be more empathic, but can you do some kind of harder analysis to show that a difference in the behavior of leaders of different sexes were in play during the pandemic? Again, I’m not sure of the answer, for it would require looking at almost every factor that differentiated countries with a more successful versus less successful coronavirus response.
I guess my main doubts are twofold. First, can we show statistically that women leaders did produce a better response to the pandemic than did male leaders? (I suspect they did.) Second, was it the personality characteristics of those women leaders that led to this result? I am agnostic about that but certainly not, even as a demonized white male, opposed to that conclusion.
I’m of the different-behavior school, but not sure whether the differences were causal in mitigating the pandemic. If they were, then I think evolution played a role.
But are there also male qualities that would make men produce better responses in the face of some other challenges? Surely there must be some problems for which the male style of leadership would produce better results than the female style. If not, then one is forced into the rather unsavory position of saying: “Men and women are the same except when women are better”, or, more permissively, “Men and women are different, but women’s differences are always better for society.”
As always, I invite readers to weigh in below.