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15 June 2021

Covid has shown we need to do away with hyper-masculine styles of leadership

Blair Williams

While women may not be inherently better leaders, Covid has proven that it's time to do away with "strongman" politics

Hyper masculine News story

It takes courage and strength to be empathetic, and I’m very proudly an empathetic and compassionate leader. I am trying to chart a different path, and that will attract criticism but I can only be true to myself and the form of leadership I believe in

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Essays on Equality – Covid-19: the road to a gender equal recovery

Read the essay collection

It has been over a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, resulting in irrevocable global change and profound challenges for political leaders, local and national. Some, due to their inadequate responses, have failed while those who successfully flattened the curve have scaled newfound heights of popularity. At the beginning of the pandemic, it appeared that countries led by women were frontrunners in their response to Covid-19, inspiring widespread media speculation that women are better leaders during a crisis. One year on, does this still ring true?

As I’ve noted previously, the compassionate, decisive and community-focused leadership style demonstrated by leaders like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, has been well-received and has largely resulted in effective Covid-19 management. In contrast, the hyper-masculine “strongman” style of leadership epitomised by leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson has been widely condemned. Does this comparison stand the test of time? According to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index (CPI), which compared 98 countries’ responses to Covid-19 in the 36 weeks following their 100th case, New Zealand performed the best. Taiwan was ranked third and Norway 18th, one of the highest-scoring European countries.

Last year, I highlighted the general praise that German Chancellor Angela Merkel received for her scientific, evidence-informed pandemic response and that Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen earned with her clear and effective communication. However, while Denmark continues to fare relatively well (23rd on the CPI), Germany has fallen to the middle of the pack (55th), with the 10th highest number of cases in the world after a rapid increase during the winter. Remarkably, however, the death rate in Germany (89/100,000) remains lower than the European average (115/100,000).

How did the “strongman” leadership style of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson fare? The Covid machismo of Trump and Bolsonaro and the privileged elite masculinity of Johnson has resulted in woeful policy responses and, particularly for the former, the continuous undermining of health and science experts, with disastrous outcomes. According to the CPI, the UK ranked 66th, the US came in at 94 and Brazil performed the worst (98th), and all three countries are in the top five for the total number of cases and deaths. A desire to out-muscle the virus was clearest in the attitudes toward mask-wearing that each leader publicly displayed. While Johnson donned a mask in the early months of the pandemic after contracting the virus, Bolsonaro and Trump have notoriously disparaged them. Bolsonaro made headlines for being court-ordered to wear a mask, for using homophobic slurs to mock the wearing of masks by staffers and, more recently and after the Brazilian death toll passed 250,000, for claiming that masks supposedly cause headaches, lack of concentration and unhappiness. Trump consistently politicised masks as a partisan and hyper-masculine issue, illustrating how “health behaviours can demonstrate masculine ideals that serve to reinforce the systematic subordination of women or ‘weak’ men and preserve hierarchies of authority”. It is not surprising, then, that all three leaders contracted the virus. In fact, out of the 14 heads of state and government who caught Covid-19 in 2020, only one was a woman.

The extent to which Trump lacked any effective Covid-19 policies, combined with his particularly dangerous form of toxic masculinity, has been described as “dominating masculine necropolitics”. Dominating masculinity involves “exercising power and control over people and events”, while necropolitics can be defined as “the use of social and political power to determine who may live and who may die, and who is disposable and expendable”. Trump’s dominating masculine necropolitics – his desire for control and adherence to his authority combined with a “racist, classist and ageist contempt for human life” as well as a ridicule of medical expertise – resulted in the highest case tally and death toll in the world, disproportionately affecting Indigenous and Black Americans.

It is evident that the hyper-masculine “strongman” style of leadership is particularly ineffective during a health crisis. However, when it comes to the successes of women-led countries, do these results purely reflect gender? Recent studies have suggested that the connection between women leaders and a better pandemic response is a “spurious correlation” as it comes down to culture and egalitarianism. Egalitarian countries fare better during crises and they are also, coincidentally, more likely to elect women. Yet other research, comparing women-led countries with neighbouring men-led countries, nevertheless found that the former had better Covid-19 outcomes, locked down their countries earlier and had a more decisive and effective communication style.

Assuming that a leader is innately better because of her gender is reductive and places unrealistically high expectations that can expose women to a backlash if they do not measure up. These differences are less about gender and more about socialisation – in other words, the style of leadership that women tend to adopt. Women have been socialised, and are expected, to be nurturing, caring and compassionate. They therefore tend to display a more empathetic and “interpersonally oriented” style of leadership. In normal times, leadership traits have been heavily associated, if not defined, by stereotypically “masculine” ideals: “rational, management-oriented, male, technocratic, quantitative, cost-driven, hierarchical, short-term, pragmatic and materialistic”. Yet in times of crisis – and especially crises of public health – stereotypically “feminine” leadership qualities are preferred. It remains to be seen whether this appreciation will continue after the immediate health crisis and into the recovery stages, when attention will turn towards the economy, a highly masculinised arena. It is therefore imperative that we continue to value these more compassionate leadership styles in the Covid-19 recovery, rather than throwing them off the proverbial “glass cliff” and restoring traditional gender norms.

While women may not necessarily be inherently better leaders, it is evident that we need to do away with hyper-masculine and dominating styles of leadership and instead embrace those that are compassionate, collaborative, and resilient. The pandemic has heightened already existing inequalities which, without gender-responsive government intervention, risk setting back hard-earned gains in gender equality by at least 25 years. An effective Covid-19 recovery therefore depends on diverse voices in all areas of decision-making and leadership so that, rather than return to the status quo, we can move towards a more inclusive and equitable society.


Blair Williams is a Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Australia National University.