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11 May 2021

It's a distraction to focus on the success of individual women leaders during Covid

Clare Wenham and Asha Herten-Crabb

There needs to be more nuance in discussions around gender and leadership

Clare Wenham EoE News story

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

Read the essay collection

Much has been made in the press about the role of women’s leadership in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. The media has hailed the success of leading figures such as Jacinda Arden, Tsai-Ing Wen, and Sanna Marin in managing to keep case numbers low during the last year. This has been mirrored in academic research, with studies demonstrating women leaders may be more inclined to acknowledge the human cost of the pandemic and engage with more gender-sensitive messaging. Yet, aggregate data analysis has highlighted selection bias in some such analyses, that there are in fact some women leaders doing a good job in combatting the crisis, and some performing less well. Similarly, some men are doing well also.

We think that there’s greater nuance to this story: rather than successful Covid-19 responses being the function of individual women executive leaders, countries which have a better social contract between population and government (the extent to which individuals are willing to sacrifice certain freedoms and bestow power to a political authority, and in return expect to be protected by that authority for the common good) are more likely to elect women, more likely to prioritise public services like healthcare, and more likely to respond better to the pandemic. Importantly, for effective public health interventions, the population has to trust the government and be willing, and able, to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Though women’s executive leadership deserves to be celebrated, providing important role models and necessary alternatives to the rise in hyper-masculinised “strongman” politics, focusing on individual women’s success can paint a false picture of the state of gender equality. By exalting women’s executive leadership as the signpost for equality, we inculcate the idea that individual women can independently overcome patriarchal structures (ie “if they only try hard enough”) and obscure the plight of millions of women who do not benefit from such a position.

Moreover, media emphasis of women’s leadership during Covid-19 tends to highlight traits deemed “feminine” – empathy, listening skills, the ability to see the bigger picture, and the desire to seek broad input over authoritative decision-making. The association and reproduction of these qualities as feminine by the media is not just an example of selection bias but risks essentialising women as maternal caregivers, reproducing norms of social reproduction and ignoring the men who have or would also benefit from such traits.

Focusing on individual women’s executive leadership can further ignore the overwhelming lack of women’s voices in decision-making globally – 85 per cent of 115 Covid-19 taskforces from 87 countries were majority men – and obscures broader issues related to women’s role in the pandemic: their increased risk of gender-based violence, burden of low-paid and unpaid care work as health and social care workers and mothers, and disproportionate risk of job loss.

Thus, instead of thinking about individual women leaders, we need to focus on the societies in which these women come to power. 2018 Canadian data has shown that increased participation of women in leadership causes a decline in mortality, but this is not to say that this is because of the gender of leaders, as much as it is in governments which have increased investment in health and social care. One study that assessed whether women heads of state had led more successful responses to Covid-19 found that indeed they had, but that this effect was mediated by greater historical investment in health, and universal health coverage. The authors argue that male leaders of countries with better health systems would fare just as well.16

In this respect, women’s representation is a symptom of a particular society that responds well in crisis likely owing to governance structures and social contract, just as women’s lack of representation is a symptom of the distance and inequality between governing structures and the people they are intended to serve. Women’s participation in politics is influenced by broader participation in the labour market, increased development, a post-industrial society and a developed welfare state.

Analyses of individual women leaders should therefore be considered against the backdrop of broader equality in the social contract. Increasing proportions of women parliamentarians do increase the development of policies that support women through public service financing (including health and social care) and social protection, however, having more women in leadership positions does not, by default, lead to greater gender awareness or mainstreaming in policy. For this, we need to mainstream gender expertise, and to ensure equality impact assessments of policy to understand the effects of the proposed intervention. Only through identifying the (potential) gendered effects of policy can efforts be made to mitigate against downstream consequences for women.

This expertise will be particularly important for overcoming the regressive nature of the pandemic, both on women’s livelihoods and their ability to participate in politics. Evidence from previous economic crises indicates that women politicians may be both short in supply and demand as the Covid-19 pandemic recedes: the ability of women to participate in politics is diminished through their increased unpaid care work and worsened economic state, and male politicians are increasingly sought as a supposed stabilising force. Despite the increased media interest in women’s leadership, as states emerge from the damage wrought by Covid-19 and inadequate gender-blind government policy responses, as well as a societal retrenchment to more conservative gender norms, it is likely that we will see a return to more traditional roles.

Policies that support women’s livelihoods, their paid and unpaid labour, their ability to house and feed themselves and their families, will do more for women’s political participation in the coming years than the media’s disproportionate emphasis on individual women’s leadership during this crisis. For example, while the UK government has offered NHS staff a 1 per cent pay increase, in France, another male-led government, has offered their equivalent health workers 10 per cent. Algeria has provided paid leave for all pregnant women and women taking care of children or persons with health vulnerabilities, and Grenada has enforced a quota, albeit small (10 per cent), on the proportion of new infrastructure jobs that must go to women. It is policies such as these which will meaningfully redress the differential gendered effect of Covid-19 and seek to improve the social contract between government and population.

Discussions on gender (in)equality during crises requires more than just equality for individual heads of state and should include a holistic approach to improving policies which affect the lives of women and other marginalised communities. Women leaders are a symptom of a society that has prioritised the health and wellbeing of their citizens, and this should be celebrated – but not to the exclusion of meaningful gender transformative policy.

Clare Wenham is an Assistant Professor in Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Asha Herten-Crabb is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.