Coronavirus: Women and societies that have chosen to be led by a woman, who have made a difference


Have women handled the pandemic better than their male counterparts? It seems so. The first to n

ote that countries led by a woman fared better was Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an expert in leadership and gender balance, with an article in the economic magazine Forbes. Nicholas Kristof also explored the subject in his column in the New York Times, asking himself: “Why are the rates of coronavirus deaths far lower in many female-led countries?” By comparing the coronavirus death rates in 21 different countries, 13 of which led by men and 8 led by women, it is observed that while the former suffered an average of 214 coronavirus deaths per million people, those led by women recorded only a fifth of those deaths, 36 per million. Which makes Kristof say that if the United States had had the average death rate of any of the countries with a woman at the head of government, the lives of 102,000 of the 114,000 Americans who died could have been saved.

“Woman-led countries have proven to be particularly effective in fighting the coronavirus,” noted Anne W. Rimoin, a UCLA epidemiologist. And perhaps, “New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway have done well thanks to the leadership and governance style of their female leaders.” Obviously, there has been no shortage of bad female leaders over the years. According to research carried out by Kristof himself (Half the sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide), often female leaders around the world have not even been better than their male counterparts in providing education for girls or reducing maternal mortality. However, the American journalist, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, writes “there is an established orientation that having more women on board and at the grassroots level can make a difference, but there was no evidence that women are better presidents or prime ministers – until Covid-19 arrived”.

It’s not that the leaders who have handled the virus best are all women. But it is a fact that “those who got it all wrong and messed up were all men, and mostly of a particular type: authoritarian, boastful and braggart. Think of Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran and Donald Trump in the United States. Virtually all countries that have recorded a coronavirus death rate greater than 150 deaths per million people are ruled by one man. And that gap is likely to have a lot to do with male ego and bravado overflowing, in large quantities, right where things have taken their worst turn (US, Brazil, Russia, UK).

“We often joke about the fact that male drivers never ask for directions” observed, in fact, Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania who believes there is something true even with regard to female leadership, in terms of recognition of competence and relationship with the experts, while men pull straight as if they already had that competence. Emanuel is not completely wrong. There is no doubt that authoritarian males who reacted wrongly were wary of experts and were too full of themselves; and there is no doubt that the leaders who handled the virus best were the ones who humbly consulted the experts and acted swiftly and that many of them were women. Nonetheless, it is possible that what also counts is the kind of country that has chosen to rely on a woman. Kristof in his article, in fact, poses an interesting question: “are women who have turned out to be better leaders, more suitable for managing Covid-19 than their male counterparts, or is what matters most the country, the type of society that chooses to be guided by a woman?”

According to analysts, companies with more female managers generally perform better than those with few female executives. And this does not only have to do with the genius of women or their style (empathy, a more direct and more creative approach, etc.) Companies that are so open to having many female managers are also more willing to embrace other innovations, and it may be this innovative spirit that leads to greater profitability.

Individual leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinta Arden, for example, have attracted much praise, but Kristof speculates that perhaps countries that are willing to elect a woman as prime minister are also the countries most likely to listen to epidemiologists and experts generally, rather than anti-vaxxers. And, possibly, the two go together.


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