By Lily Owen
Image credit: The Guardian
Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten, a small country on the southern part of a Caribbean Island and little known amongst the collective of national leaders shouting about this health crisis, has said it best: “Simply. Stop. Moving.” Without the global prestige or reputation, Jacob’s simplistic language is wonderfully effective because it is true. When it takes the UK four years to “Get Brexit Done” (and the terms are still yet to be fully agreed…) this is how you get coronavirus done, Boris! None of this noncommittal advice that even had the British police acknowledge confusion over the government’s lockdown rules, just say it as it is. As ministers and police have taken wildly different definitions of lockdown, this is not the first time a conservative government has failed to make things clear – are we all agreed on what Brexit means now? Take it from Jacobs, “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat…sardines.” Take your advice from the nations that have actually proven to successfully flatten their curve and the one thing they all have in common is clear: considerate female leadership.
Women make up less than 7% of world leaders globally and yet, that 7% is leading the majority through this pandemic. Most female leaders have been praised for their rapid, rational, and educated response to the virus, awarding female leadership with the respect it has so long deserved. They have shown a care and consideration that comes with the ‘feminine’ tendency to be risk-averse and the results are paying off.
Angela Merkel wasted no time in warning Germany that this was a serious threat that would infect up to 70% of the population – a little more sensitive than our own Johnson’s confession that people will inevitably lose loved ones. The chancellor has hammered home the message that “it’s serious” and for the public to “take it seriously”, as well as enacting her own advice by introducing testing immediately. COVID-19 antibody testing is now widespread in Germany and is estimated to run 120,000 tests a day; and, with 83 million people and 159,000 cases, has just over 6,000 deaths – an exceptionally low mortality rate in these circumstances. By comparison, the UK are testing less than 10,000 a day and the US are still yet to work out how to test on such a large scale. As one Twitter user commented, that is what you get when “their president used to be a quantum chemist and your president used to be a reality television host”.
Tsai Ingwen, leading the state of Taiwan has set the standards for procedure high by acting fast. From the get-go in January, just as British authorities were waking up to the threat, 124 measures were introduced to prevent the spread of coronavirus without implementing a lockdown. Ingwen has also sent 10 million face masks to the US and Europe and a second round includes 6 million mask donations for Latin America, Southeast Asia, Northern Europe and the US. Taiwan’s population of 23 million has suffered 500 cases and just 6 deaths to evidence the effectiveness of this rapid response.
Jacinda Ardern was another to initiate early measures, imposing self-isolation on those entering New Zealand after just 6 cases and, soon after, banning foreigners from entering entirely. All returning New Zealanders were made to quarantine in designated locations for 2 weeks and, as a result, the daily growth rate of the virus was kept under 1%. Now, 400,000 New Zealanders are heading back to work and the country’s economy is back to operating at 75%. They have reported 19 deaths, confirming their first well over a month after the US had theirs and yet it is New Zealand that appears to be coming into the clear first, thanks to Ardern’s efficiency.
The Scandinavian region has always been praised for leading the rest of the world towards closing the gender gap. As of January 2020, Sweden is the only Nordic country that has not yet had and does not currently have a female prime minister.
Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland has offered free coronavirus testing to all citizens, not just those with active symptoms. Such a thorough tracking system has allowed them to avoid lockdown and the shutting of their schools.
Mette Frederiksen has succeeded in allowing children aged 11 and younger to return to schools in Denmark and looks to relax further measures, slowly but surely, following a similarly reactive response. Inspiring and refreshing, she also held a press conference where no adults were allowed, responding to kid’s questions from across the country and explained that it is normal and okay to feel scared.
Erna Solberg shows the same compassion in using television to talk directly to the children of her nation, Norway. She made the bold confession to CNN that she is “letting scientists make the big medical decisions”, delegating power rather than dictating to ensure the best for her country.
Sanna Marin, anointed as Finland’s youngest head of state at 34 in December 2019, has demonstrated equally profound communication tactics in inviting social media influencers to spread her government’s advice. She recognises a lack of universal interest in the news and primary media outlets across generations and so has done something about it to ensure that people listen.
These leaders have all been name-checked by Forbes as seven women with the best coronavirus responses, outperforming their male counterparts. In comparison, male leaders appear to be guided by over-inflated self-perceptions, rather than those of experts. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro compared coronavirus to a “little flu”, but does 60,000 cases and nearly 5,000 deaths sound little? Donald Trump’s insistence on ‘America first’ has him ignoring international advice when over 1 million of the world’s 3 million cases of the virus have been located within the US, which also carries the highest record of deaths at over 50,000. Instead, the advice he chooses to give out himself is to try injecting yourself with bleach. He has now clarified that this was, in fact, sarcasm, just what a country needs in a crisis: ‘I’ve found a solution!...Oh wait, turns out that will definitely kill you, so I was only kidding!’ The British government’s bumbling daily press conferences might paint a more constructive picture, but Johnson’s blaming of an administrative error for the failure to sign up to an EU equipment help scheme is just another example of deflecting responsibility. After public outcry at a refusal to take part in the scheme that bands countries together to buy PPE in bulk and get priority, of course a failure in communication should be an appropriate excuse, having failed to communicate the severity of the virus in the first place. These examples are not demonstrative of a leading instinct to protect one’s country, as do the women mentioned, but to protect one’s own reputation.
Of course, not all men are failing to cope with this pandemic – Moon Jae-in of South Korea and his three guiding principles of ‘test, trace, contain’ have proven highly effective – and, indeed, not all women could cope as well as these seven. It is useful to acknowledge that cultures that already view leadership in this way – less masculine, less authoritarian – are not just more willing to elect female leaders, but will be more risk-averse to begin with and willing to act collectively, containing the virus. Gender has been brought to our attention in this context not as causational of success, but to promote the efficacy of female leadership at a time when this is often underestimated in society. Those male leaders that are failing – Donald Trump, blaming China, the EU, a Democratic hoax and the media and Bolsonaro, filmed wiping his nose with his wrist before shaking an elderly lady’s hand – are the unfortunate stereotype of masculinity, ruling with ignorance and ego.
Stereotypes, here, are the problem: if only now we can see the qualities of a feminine leadership for the successes that have just been listed and not dismissed on assumptions of differing gendered capabilities. Jacinda Ardern has expressed that “one of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe, somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak.” This is an all too familiar criticism of female leaders, that they are too emotional, and the statistics held to their name would suggest otherwise. Similarly, gender is also not the reason behind female success: these examples set by women are not exclusive, but can be adopted by men too. Arguably, the idea that women are inherently better leaders than men because of their innate compassion is just as unhelpfully sexist as the current patriarchal trope. It is our own societal implications of gender as separate and polar, rather than fluid that has us focused on this sense of competition, that one gender is better than the other. What women have achieved here is to be commended – as a result, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have more faith in our female candidates up for the role – but men can learn from their example too. To credit a woman’s gender alone for her achievements would do her a disservice, even if perhaps it does lend itself to the more considerate type of leadership that they are proving to work right now.
If not biological sex (male vs. female), as Tomos Chamorro-Premuzic points out, then social gender (femininity vs. masculinity) appears to influence the best approach to handling a pandemic. Not shying away from evidence and advice certainly makes it a vulnerable approach, but no leader could ever have been prepared or trained to cope with a pandemic as this. What leader could be believed to gain respect by holding their hands up and saying ‘I don’t know what to do?’ The answer is: the one that is strong enough, responsible enough and assured enough to turn to others. No one is all-knowing and all-powerful, despite Trump’s infallible self-determination to believe so that has his most senior advisers visibly squirming behind him.
Egotism, arrogance and blame culture has no place in a pandemic. National leadership is about making rational decisions whilst the rest of us are off panicking – that’s why none of us are running the country. Most importantly, it is about care and protection: for the stereotypical masculine leader, ego supersedes this and becomes problematic. Maybe now it is time to look to the overlooked feminine touch on power and authority, one that looks after us all.