The global pandemic and increasing instability around the world have shown up stark lines of division between countries – particularly with regards to gender. Is it time to ask if women are better leaders than men?
As 2019 came to a close and a new decade dawned, former US President Barack Obama made a telling comment at a private leadership event in Singapore. “I’m absolutely confident that for two years, if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything… living standards and outcomes.” The statement was loaded with intent on a number of fronts. A positive push against toxic masculinity? Tick. A subtle endorsement of a future run for office by Michelle Obama? Tick. A not-so-subtle dig at current incumbent Donald Trump? Double tick. But while the optimism of 2020 swiftly disappeared behind a face mask, the gravitas of Obama’s words only increased in heft.
Global statistics quickly revealed that the countries with the most effective coronavirus responses have one thing in common – a woman at the helm. From the quick control by Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen putting the country in lockdown early, and Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir offering free testing to all citizens, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel communicating with calm and scientific rigor, the prime minister of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean taking early and decisive action, and the swift reactions of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, female leaders around the world proved innovative and decisive in their actions. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg also took her lead from scientists and won acclaim for her compassionate messages to children.
In particular, Ardern’s response to Covid-19, including her empathetic and straight- forward speeches, have led many to claim her to be the most effective leader on the planet. While others pondered closing their borders, Ardern quickly implemented strict quarantine measures. As a result, New Zealand has to date recorded just 22 deaths and effectively stopped community transmission. “Jacinda is an authentic person and comes across that way,” says Caroline Fisher, a former spin doctor and assistant professor of journalism at University of Canberra. “During the Covid-19 lockdown, she led the country from her lounge in her tracksuit, holding daily live-streamed chats. She led by example. She doesn’t live in a grand presidential home, she lives in her three-bedroom house with her partner and child in a regular neighborhood. She seems to effortlessly juggle motherhood and leadership. She exudes warmth. She is eloquent and strong.”
In Europe, Merkel might not show Ardern’s humor and compassion, but Mutti (Mom), as she is affectionately known, is respected for her sensible and reliable judgement. A scientist with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, she has been pragmatic throughout the crisis and her speeches to the point. “Merkel’s image is one of dependability and rationality,” explains Fisher. “She relies on evidence to make decisions and is a steady pair of hands. While she is politically conservative, she is also compassionate. She isn’t exciting, but she is authentic, consistent, and trustworthy.” The country’s efficient rollout of mass testing and effective lockdown restrictions have helped keep their death toll significantly lower than some of their neighbors.
At the other end of the spectrum are countries with populist leaders, who have seen some of the fastest rates of infection and highest death tolls in the world, largely due to their shambolic responses to the threat. US President Trump has been criticized not only for his slow response to the virus but also for his confusing messages during White House briefings, offering dangerous and unproven medical advice. He’s also come under fire for the country’s lack of tests and medical and PPE resources. “He is a showman,” says Fisher. “He speaks very colloquially and off the cuff and challenges the mainstream political system. It’s all part of his electoral appeal and is carefully developed.” Brazilian Prime Minister Jair Bolsonaro claimed the reaction to Covid-19 was media hysteria, stating “other forms of flu killed more than this” and fired his popular health minister for criticizing him for going out in public despite social distancing measures being put in place. Bolsonaro has previously courted controversy with his statements that the devastating Amazon wildfires last year were set by NGOs, as well as racially insensitive comments against his country’s indigenous peoples. This is also a man who once remarked, “I’ve got five kids but on the fifth, I had a moment of weakness and it came out a woman.”
If the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” as Martin Luther King Jr stated, then the world’s female leaders have shown their mettle. When a terrorist killed 50 people inside two Christchurch mosques last year, Ardern was applauded not only for her empathetic and compassionate response, but also for swiftly enacting legislative changes around firearms. “Jacinda chooses inclusive words, emphasizing kindness.
Her general verbal language is one of cohesion and respect for the community whatever their religion, race, or heritage,” explains behaviorist and author of The Future of Body Language, Carole Railton frsa (Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts). “She appears to be speaking from her heart.” The prime minister refused to name the killer, insisting “he is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless.” Her actions were praised by fellow leaders and the global Muslim community, including HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, who lit up Burj Khalifa in her honor.
“The public have higher standards of women politicians. They want them to be strong and make hard decisions, but they want them to be maternal, too”
In contrast, after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 people, Trump was photographed smiling and giving the thumbs up when visiting the city. His speech was notably bombastic and filled with errors, including blaming the violence on video games and the media, and avoided the issue of gun control. “Within the first minute of his speech he used the words ‘monster,’ ‘evil,’ ‘wicked,’ and ‘twisted,’” says Railton. “He permeated his speech throughout with aggressive words.” While Ardern leaned forward in her speech – shortening the distance between herself and the audience, offering better connection – Trump raised his fists. “He makes great use of his hands at chest level, where your hands go before a physical fight,” says Railton. “His hands jester that he is going to sort things out, while also highlighting his male authority.”
While effective crisis management along with a more empathic approach may well characterize Ardern and other female leaders as the new power brokers for the 21st century, making it to the seat of governance remains an almighty hurdle, with the world average of women in parliament being 24.9%, according to UN Women. Only 6.6% of heads of state and 6.2% of heads of government are women. The UAE stands in marked contrast to this; its nine female ministers in the cabinet ranking the country fourth on the UN’s table of women in parliament (after Rwanda, Cuba, and Bolivia.) And it’s not only in government that female leaders and pioneers are coming to the fore. Scientist Sarah Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and deputy project manager and science lead at the Emirates Mars Mission, is helping prepare two missions to Mars, including the Hope Probe – a locally made satellite due to launch to space this year. And after winning the bid for Expo 2020, Reem Al Hashimi, Minister of State for International Cooperation and director general of the Expo 2020 Dubai Office, helped put the region’s success under the international spotlight.
“People want somebody they can trust to do what is necessary for the best of all citizens… It helps if the person is also seen as one of the people”
The challenges faced by women to reach the highest sports of leadership include systematic discrimination, lack of access to equal opportunities, and cultural biases, including perceptions of body language, which can make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously in positions of power. “Those in authority make fewer movements,” explains Railton, “and in general, women make more movements than men. It can make it difficult for both men and women to see each other as equal even when positions of authority have been reached.”
Public perception is another hurdle. “The public have higher standards of women politicians,” explains Fisher. “They want them to be strong and make hard decisions, but they want them to be caring and maternal, too. It is a hard balance. For female leaders who aren’t married or have children – like former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – the media and public can be very hard. Despite being an efficient administrator and policy reformer, Gillard was portrayed as barren and cold. Male politicians don’t get that same kind of treatment.” Research by Dr Brittany L Stalsburg published by Cambridge University Press seems to confirm this, with studies showing that “family obligation constrain the political careers of women but not men” and that “voters rate childless female candidates substantially lower than childless male candidates.”
It’s often said that Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female prime minister, was successful because she displayed traits traditionally seen as male – authoritarian, unemotional, and impersonal. She even lowered the pitch of her voice. Whether she was a successful leader is open to debate – and dependent on your social-economic standing – but there’s no denying the Iron Lady was an assertive politician who made tough policy decisions.
Yet it appears the tide could be turning around the world. “There are male leaders now, like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who display more traditionally ‘female’ characteristics,” says Fisher, “such as showing emotions, physically embracing, and caring for others.” These are traits Reem Shaheen, counselling psychologist at BE Psychology Center in Dubai, believes modern society craves. “When leaders show their vulnerability, they tend to be more respected and admired for being honest,” she says. “They become more authentic and real.”
Authenticity is key to public perception and with social media, politicians can now control how they are perceived. Obama, Ardern, and Trump are all politicians of the digital age. While Obama was dubbed the US’s “first social media president,” with his tweets offering the first real human voice of the White House, the 39-year-old Ardern has proven to be adept at using it to form a bond with her audience. The prime minister regularly uses live platforms to answer questions while drinking a cup of tea or in her sweats after putting her two-year-old daughter to bed. In the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed and his son Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, use social media to thank the medical staff and personally update the nation on its Covid-19 status. Similarly, Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah uses her online profile to help keep citizens calm and hopeful.
When it comes to leadership, people want somebody they can trust to do what is necessary for the best of all citizens, even if those choices are tough. It helps if the person is also seen as one of the people. When Merkel went shopping for food and toilet paper before the German lockdown, the images went viral – she had shown a human side to the crisis.
A good leader needs to balance the very human need for empathy and warmth with making the kind of decisions needed to effectively steer the ship. Merkel is credited with maneuvering Europe through choppy financial and political waters, while also opening up her country’s borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing war. She’s also made Germany a leader in energy reform. Ardern has similarly balanced her relatability with pushing through politically difficult legislation around gun control, pollution, and parental leave. In Lebanon, MP Paula Yacoubian has exposed government failures, spoken up about corruption, and raised funds for underprivileged people by launching the Dafa campaign. In the US, politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar constantly speak truth to power, challenging older, male politicians on contentious topics such as immigration, the climate crisis, and cybersecurity.
Of course, it is reductive to broadly claim that women make better leaders than men – but the evidence so far is compelling. Numerous studies by the Harvard Business Review have shown that women scored at a statistically higher level than men on the majority of leadership competencies that were measured. Where women do lag behind, the research shows, is in confidence levels. As the world changes irrevocably around us, perhaps it’s time for the systems of governance to change as well. Great – or poor – leadership is not gender-specific. In a post-corona world, it will be spirit, not gender, that matters.
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia