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Détecteur de rumeurs

Women at the head of countries, better to curb the pandemic?

Les articles du Détecteur de rumeurs sont rédigés par des journalistes
scientifiques de l'Agence Science-Presse. Les Fonds de recherche du Québec et
le Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire sont partenaires du Détecteur de rumeurs.

Auteur : Agence Science Presse - Catherine Couturier

New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland… What do these countries have in common? They’ve been fairly successful at controlling the pandemic. They’re also led by women. Are these facts really related? The Rumour Detector provides some nuances.

For the past few months, several media analysts have been pointing to the role of women leaders in responding to the coronavirus. They apparently controlled their cases better, communicated better and responded more quickly to the crisis. While the virus is still raging, it isn’t possible to draw such firm conclusions. But here are a few of the arguments made.

The leaders who handled the crisis well aren’t all women. But those who responded worst are all men.

This argument was made by columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. But he doesn’t account for the fact that barely 10% of the world’s Heads of State are women. In fact, there are so few of them that it’s tempting to consider they represent their gender. That’s not done with men.

This isn’t a one-way trend. Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès, has one of the highest COVID death rates per million population. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has been criticized for her handling of the pandemic. In the United States, one political science professor pointed out that women governors didn’t impose a lockdown any faster than their male counterparts. The difference depends instead on political parties.

Societies that elect women are more inclusive: is this a success factor?

A woman leader would be one indicator among others that people with different perspectives are making the decisions. They would have fewer blind spots. And they’d be able to propose more complete solutions. If this hypothesis checked out, a woman leader certainly would be an advantage in a complex situation like a pandemic. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel’s government considered a variety of information people weren’t used to hearing: epidemiological models, data from healthcare professionals, comparisons with other countries’ strategies. But Sweden and the United Kingdom mainly relied on epidemiological models, and very little on experts outside the government bureaucracy.

A different leadership style?

The research hasn’t established whether women leaders are more or less effective than men. But some studies suggest trends in leadership styles. According to jurist Peter Huang of the University of Colorado, women during this crisis have been more inclined to recognize their limits and consult experts. Leaders with an authoritarian approach, as in Brazil, the United States, Russia or England, instead let their male egos drive their decisions.

An analysis in Politico magazine also points to “female” leadership characteristics, like cooperation and compassion. According to two American researchers, women leaders would be more empathetic. They put more emphasis on human dignity and care. It’s also pointed out that some men tend not to want to show weakness.

Finally, experts interviewed by Vox magazine argued that women leaders are better able to call for cooperation and solidarity, contrary to male leaders Some men instead feel pressure to live up to crisis management practices ground in “traditional – even toxic – masculinity”.

But this essentialist view is far from unanimous. “Women are better leaders in this context of a health crisis. That’s not because they’re women or show “feminine” qualities, but because they have the necessary skills to lead a country,” the feminist newsletter Les Glorieuses points out. Different attributes based on sex instead reflect gender-related perceptions and stereotypes. A man could adopt a female leadership style.

Unreliable data

In all cases, with so few women as Heads of State, it’s easy to cherry pick. The New York Times columnist cited above says he selected 21 countries, including 13 led by men. But he doesn’t give the list of countries or specify why he chose them instead of others.

Sometimes Finland (led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin) is compared with Sweden. These countries adopted radically different approaches to the pandemic. Or Taiwan (which has a woman President) is singled out, without mentioning Singapore or South Korea. Those countries also controlled the pandemic successfully. Some articles associated the “Asian culture of obedience” with control of the epidemic. This is another analysis that’s a little lame).

There are two small studies that nonetheless sought to verify if women leaders had done better during the pandemic. They are not yet peer reviewed and have several weaknesses. The first study, from the University of Liverpool, also doesn’t mention the countries included in its analysis. Even though both studies conclude that women did better, they didn’t find statistically meaningful variations by gender.

Multiple variables

Preparation for the pandemic; infection control; test strategy; population density; wealth and access to healthcare, demography, cross-border trips – all these facts played a role in each country’s success – or failure. Small countries like Taiwan and New Zealand, which are also islands, can apply certain measures more quickly, like closing borders or large-scale testing.

It’s a perilous exercise to attribute a country’s success to its leader’s gender. This could be based on confirmation bias. But at least the success of several woman leaders has countered the preconceived idea that men are always better leaders than women.