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Commentary: Look behind stereotypes to understand the success of women leaders amid COVID-19


NEWCASTLE, England: Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Angela Merkel of Germany have all been singled out for the way they have handled the coronavirus pandemic. Theyve been praised for demonstrating care, empathy and a collaborative approach.

These skills – stereotypically described as “feminine” – have enabled them to listen to scientific expertise, work with local authorities and communicate effectively with the public. It has made them come across as transparent and accountable at a time of mass confusion.



In stark contrast, male leaders in some of the worst performing countries – the UK, the US and Brazil – have adopted a leadership style of belligerent rhetoric.

Theyve taken guidance from entourages of confidantes, often instead of experts. Their inconsistent, unclear communications have been compared to “gaslighting”.

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Their tendency to follow this path perhaps isnt surprising. After all, the “hyper-masculine” style – a maverick leader who establishes authoritative power by aggressively rejecting “feminine” traits like collaboration, empathy and respect for due process – proved a successful electoral strategy for these leaders.



There are many men of course who are not like that – just as there are women who dont consider themselves particularly empathetic or collaborative.

So, while it is wonderful to see women leaders and feminine leadership being praised so widely during the pandemic, emphasising the stereotypical characteristics of the leaders themselves may reinforce the gendered thinking that helps put macho populist leaders in power.

READ: Commentary: No room for BS in the time of coronavirus


To understand the success of these women leaders in handling COVID-19, the focus should be on the political culture and institutions which allowed women who adopt a “feminine” approach to leadership to come to power.

More representative systems create styles of leadership which inherently involve compromise and collaboration rather than aggression and domination. This can create a political culture in which femininity and power are not in contradiction.

We can see the perpetuation of stereotypes in the way that women leaders have been praised for their management of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, beyond that, we can also see how these women are breaking the mould.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a press conference about the COVID-19 coronavirus at Parliament in Wellington on Jun 8, 2020. (File photo: AFP)

Ardern is only the second premier in the world to give birth while in office. She has placed empathy and care at the centre of her personal style of authority.

This, in itself, is a breakthrough, but it is notable that when she exhibits the traits of strength, decisiveness and military command, which have also been prominent in her management of the crisis, these too are seen through a maternal lens.

One religious leader accused her of implementing a “nanny state”, being an “overly controlling parent” and even BBC Newsnight described her as “putting the entire nation on the naughty step”.

READ: Commentary: Jacinda Ardern, the leader our troubled times need

Merkel is not a mother herself, but she is known in Germany as “mutti” – the “mummy” of the nation. Her route to power is a study in the discourses which frame the way women in politics are seen.

Her mentor Helmut Kohl famously nicknamed her his “Madchen” – his girl – and she demonstrates her economic credentials by evoking the thrifty “schwabische hausfrau” (Swabian housewife).

It has come to the fore in this pandemic, however, that she also has a PhD in quantum chemistry.

READ: Commentary: Why is Germanys COVID-19 fatality rate so low?

Tsai, who also has a PhD, has been praised for her swift action to protect citizens health during the pandemic. She has also sent humanitarian aid to other countries, including the US.

However, while similar action by Ardern was attributed to her compassion, Tsais response is more consistent with her strong assertion of Taiwanese independence. There were fears that if the virus spread, China would be able to take geopolitical advantage.

READ: Commentary: With command and control, Taiwan excels in managing COVID-19


These women are good leaders because they are highly skilled, qualified and experienced. Crucially, though, they have come through political systems in which their kind of skills can be valued, which are explicitly designed to keep strong-man populist leaders at bay.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai Ching-te attend the inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan May 20, 2020. Makoto Lin/Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via REUTERS

New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany all have multiple institutionalised checks and balances on executive power. They have strong local institutions of governance which favour local participationRead More – Source

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