Leadership After COVID: Now, It’s the Women’s Turn

Women-led nations are doing better than male-led nations in handling COVID-19.

To all the men out there who recoil at that statement, get over it. It’s true. And new research backs it up. According to a study of 194 countries by two economists based in England, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, women-led nations like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, and Finland have recorded fewer deaths than those led by men, like the United States, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Even at the local level, we can see the impact of structural patriarchy on pandemic-related policymaking. In Honolulu, for example, Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently issued an executive order opening beaches, hiking trails and parks for solo, by-yourself activities. If you’re a single mother struggling to manage a crumbling economy and your children’s virtual learning environment, forget about taking your kids to the beach for a 15-minute break.

Just drop 5-year-old Johnny off by the forest and tell him to take a hike. Baby’s first solo adventure. What could go wrong?

It’s easy to dismiss Caldwell’s decision as a lapse in judgement intended to make enforcement of social distancing requirements easier for law enforcement. Yet, one has to ask: if more women who understand the difficulties of motherhood were involved in municipal decision-making, would the executive order have looked different?

I submit that it would have and that it’s just one example of the problems that patriarchy causes in dealing with the crisis. Take two case studies in leadership, the United States and New Zealand. In the U.S., President Donald Trump is currently making headlines for reportedly downplaying the impact of the coronavirus for political effect. This comes as the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll nears 200,000 and case count surpasses 6.5 million, while the economy sputters and teachers die in prematurely reopened classrooms. This is what Trump calls “winning.”

In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern–who gave birth while running her country–immediately responded to the COVID threat by implementing measures to contain community spread. New Zealand’s borders were locked down to travelers. Her government implemented science-based actions that pivoted from managing to eliminating the disease because of testing limitations at the onset of the virus, which led to the nation being COVID-free for 100 consecutive days. To uplift the economy, New Zealand is investing NZ$175 million into arts and cultural programming and calling for the creation of thousands of green jobs.

President Trump and U.S. leaders don’t have a viable economic recovery plan. The U.S. House of Representatives–led by a woman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi–has been pushing for a major relief bill to help state governments meet their social obligations, provide a second robust stimulus payment to all residents, and deliver significant financial assistance to essential employees. But the Senate–led by a man, Sen. Mitch McConnell–is only interested in targeted relief that boosts the bottom lines of private businesses.

We can all think of women who failed at the task of leadership, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is using the COVID crisis to defund public schools and push for the institution of voucher programs. (Side question: can schools use vouchers to purchase guns to fight off potential grizzly bear attacks, as DeVos warned about during her confirmation hearing?) For further reference, see former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who adheres to the paternalistic ideology of “one-nation conservative” and is best known for her Brexit buffoonery.

Women-led nations have grappled with their legacies of patriarchy and gender discrimination thoroughly enough to entrust a female to be their national leader. That’s axiomatic, but it also suggests that those countries are open to embracing democratizing norms and policies, like economic recoveries meant to advance the common good. They’re less likely than male-dominant polities to be steeped in pandemic denialism and have their top political leaders propound COVID conspiracies, as Trump does on a daily basis.

Numerous studies have shown that women are more empathetic than men. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when female leaders implement policies that put compassion before competition. While many nations engaged in fear-mongering over immigration throughout this decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured that nearly a million refugees entering Germany were guaranteed their basic human rights. As the U.S. allows unemployment insurance to expire for tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs, Prime Minister Ardern is guiding New Zealand in implementing comprehensive wage subsidies and deferring mortgages until March 31, 2021.

Jacindamania is a direct challenge to male domination. Though the media fawns over the “resolute ordinariness of her existence,” her impact on the international political community is anything but quotidian. Her exceptional skill in flattening New Zealand’s COVID curve has positioned her as a central figure in flattening patriarchal social hierarchies. Her female counterparts in the club of national leaders are doing the same. They’re not interested in token gestures of progress. Rather, they’re crafting new models of gendered leadership that are proving–not that they need to prove anything to anyone–to be more effective in addressing the most pressing issues to today, from the coronavirus to climate change to economic inequality.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the global response to the pandemic. Our economic, political, and public health systems will be changed forever. If we want those changes to be a sign and signal of our commitment to human dignity, then we need to empower women to sit at the heads of the tables they’ve been forced to set for centuries.

They should have been sitting there all along.