While some women-led countries are faring better than men-led countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new research published in the scientific journal PLOS One indicates that this trend is not universally true.
The findings suggest that the perception of women leaders excelling over their male counterparts in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is the result of Western media bias. The study also found that countries with higher levels of egalitarianism do tend to have a lower rate of COVID-19 fatalities.
“My primary field is political linguistics, and it struck me this past spring that much of the reason why popular media was focused on the successes of women world leaders was that they were particularly visible in their public outreach to their constituents, in some cases specifically talking to the children in their countries,” explained study author Leah C. Windsor, a research assistant professor at the University of Memphis.
“Women leaders and women more broadly face what’s called the ‘gender double bind’ — contemporary culture punishes women for being too masculine and aggressive, and also for being too feminine. Women leaders can neither be perceived as too strong, or too weak.”
“However, during pandemics, they are rewarded for these characteristics. They can be strong and decisive on questions of hard security, like closing borders and instituting stay-at-home orders, and then can also be gentle and reassuring to their constituents,” Windsor said.
The researchers analyzed the success of 175 countries in containing COVID-19 using data from Our World in Data, the World Bank, Freedom House, and the World Health Organization. After controlling for factors such as GDP per capita and percent of the population over age 65, they found no evidence that countries led by women tended to have less COVID-19 fatalities than countries led by men.
“The perception that women world leaders have done better vis-a-vis COVID-19 cases and deaths largely comes from the fact that other researchers and the media have focused primarily on OECD countries, whereas we looked at the entire global sample of countries,” Windsor told PsyPost. “The cases people tended to focus on were New Zealand and Iceland — two remote island nations with relatively small populations, where borders are easy to control.”
However, the researchers did find evidence that cultural dimensions influenced COVID-19 fatality rates. Countries tended to perform particularly well when they had a woman leader as well as cultural values that support female leadership.
“A society’s culture matters the most to how well it does during the pandemic,” Windsor explained. “More egalitarian countries with less gender bias, longer-range policy focus, greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and collectivist mentalities tend to do better, because everyone understands that their behavior affects others’ well-being. Second, more egalitarian countries that have female leaders have the fewest deaths and cases from COVID-19.”
The findings indicate that “countries with more egalitarian cultures will rebound quicker and have less profound negative consequences — and many of these are led by women,” Windsor added.
“The most important point is that having a more feminine society — with less power distance between individuals (like bosses and employees), with long term orientation, with collectivist (we’re all in this together) rather than individualist (you’re on your own), and with greater tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty (which is useful during a rapidly developing and changing pandemic),” Windsor said.
“More feminine societies are more likely to elect women leaders — it’s easy to focus on leadership at the top but it also matters that people in countries all work together to stop the spread of COVID-19. Country culture is important alongside leader sex/gender.”
The study, “Gender in the time of COVID-19: Evaluating national leadership and COVID-19 fatalities“, was authored by Leah C. Windsor, Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Alistair J. Windsor, Robert Ostergard, Susan Allen, Courtney Burns, Jarod Giger, and Reed Wood.