What Women Leaders Bring to the Table?

What Women Leaders Bring to the Table?

“Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” is the theme of International Women’s Day Celebration 2021. This theme raises awareness of the tremendous effort made by women in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic and why we need more women leaders. Women have stood in the front line of this crisis as healthcare workers, innovators, service providers and women political leaders have shown exemplary work in dealing with the pandemic. Their response and recovery efforts have been commendable and they have demonstrated their capability to have an equal seat at the table with their different skills, experiences, perspectives and ability to contribute to decisions, policies and law.  

However, women in leadership positions are underrepresented. According to the United Nations report published in January 2021, Women serve as heads of States/government in only 22 countries and hold only a quarter of parliamentary seats globally. The target set at Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for balanced political participation and power-sharing between women and men in decision-making in 1995 is far from being achieved and the low representation of women in leadership calls for a serious look into this pertinent issue.   

So this brings us to the question: are male leaders better than female leaders? The perceived biases are embedded in the role congruity theory which is grounded on the social role theory (Eagly et.al. 2002). Traditionally, men have been considered as the agentic gender-assertive, dominant, independent and authoritative and ideal in leadership roles. On the other hand, women have been considered the communal gender-primarily concerned with the welfare of others with characteristics of being kind, warm, supportive and affectionate (Eagly et.al. 2002). In spite of leadership styles being different and role stereotyping, women possess the qualities needed to be a leader, which are gender neutral 

  • Influence

  • Vision

  • Decision-making capability 

  • Effective Communication 

  • Clarity of Thought

  • Empathy

  • Empower Others

  • Learning Agility

  • Problem-solving

  • Innovativeness 

This article briefly discusses three characteristics that women political leaders have displayed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

1. Compassionate empathetic Leadership

Females are considered as the communal gender and their primary responsibility is to raise and protect their offspring whereas male counterparts are considered as the agentic gender, and their primary responsibility is to protect and provide. So, females are generally considered to be more compassionate and empathic. The emotion of compassion and empathy is rooted in neurobiological research which shows that females produce higher levels of oxytocin, also sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”. Oxytocin is linked to pair bonding, social conduct and social attributes (Lara, 2017). Men and women both experience the release of oxytocin during sex. However, higher levels of oxytocin are released especially during childbirth, lactation in women as it is believed to trigger bonding and nurturing traits. Lara (2017) also highlights the research done showing that oxytocin released facilitates the understanding of suffering of others and altruism, the intention to help avoid the suffering of others. 

So based on neurobiological research it can be concluded that generally females are more compassionate and the same paradigm can be applied to understanding the leadership style of women.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many women leaders responded to the crisis by showing compassion and empathy towards their people by reaching out to them with a maternal instinct of care and protection. For example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s combined “adaptive leadership” style with compassion and empathy to help New Zealanders cope with change. She addressed the nation at the time of the nationwide lockdown on the 25 March 2020 from her home in her casual attire after putting her toddler to bed with a Facebook Live session by saying she just wanted to "check in with everyone". That immediately put the tone that they as a nation were going through the change together. Her daily televised briefs and regular Facebook live sessions were to keep everyone in the loop of the changes that needed to be made collectively as a society to adapt to the new normal in order to fight the virus. Furthermore, she utilized social media as a tool to address queries of New Zealanders to pacify their anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the situation. She showed her empathy and compassion by addressing the challenges people faced with strict movement restrictions imposed nationwide, disrupted work life, inability to be with family in times of sickness and attend funerals of loved ones. Furthermore, two days prior to the nationwide lockdown, the four-level alert framework was released and explained to the people so that people could be better prepared and make sense of what was happening and why. An emphatic leader keeps the interest of the people at the core of all decisions made by understanding their suffering and helping them cope with their suffering. Jacinda Ardern was such a leader who was able to show her empathetic adaptive leadership with the way she handled the covid-19 situation.    

2. Decision-making Ability

There is a general notion that females start crumbling under stress whereas males are able to handle stress better, hence determining their decision-making ability. However, neuroscientists have evidence that contradicts this notion. Men and women engage in risk-taking behaviour differently and make different trade-offs. Independent studies carried out by cognitive neuroscientists found that not all men are rock solid in stressful situations and they become risk-takers when their cortisol levels rise even when the rewards have a small probability of materializing. On the other hand, in a study by Mather and van den Bos found that women tend to become risk-alert in stressful situations. They explore contingencies, going for smaller wins which guarantee success. Similar results were reported by cognitive neuroscientists Mather and Lighthall (2012) that women made smart decisions-quitting when they were ahead and took safe bete when stressed whereas men risked everything for a small chance of winning big. 

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, women leaders displayed their risk-alert characteristic to respond to the pandemic which correlates to literature on risk-aversion attitudes of women. Women leaders such as Prime Minister of New Zealand, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Taiwan quickly and decisively ordered the strictest lockdowns at the very earliest stage of the Pandemic locking down their countries instead of risking remaining open and being exposed to the viral threat. This risk-alert behaviour of women leaders made them choose saving humans versus saving the economy. This decision was viewed as harsh and irrational by many initially but it paid off in terms of low death rate in female-led countries. Furthermore, their decision was considered as a safe bet with guaranteed success for contact tracing, isolation and recovery and reducing loss of life. 

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen government policy was also inwards-welfare of their people (risk-alert). Quick decisions were made keeping the safety of people based on their prior experience with SARS and other epidemics. Taiwan decided to stockpile all domestically-produced masks and centralise masks distribution. They made wearing of masks mandatory. Furthermore, a ban was imposed on export of masks and mask production was increased to 20 million units a day (Wang & Ellis, 2020). All these simple measures taken in the interest of the people helped Taiwan to effectively respond to covid-19, kept mortality low and community spread.

3. Communication

Research shows that the communication style of women aligns with their communal gender role of building relationships, working collaboratively to resolve problems, showing trust, care and advise, being attentive to the non-verbal cues along with being good listeners (Mohindra & Azhar, 2012). They often communicate in a “rapport talk” style which aims to establish relationships and makes people in the relationship feel close to each other. A study on leadership conducted by US consulting firm, “Zenger & Folkman”, has consistently found that women score higher than men in their ability to communicate powerfully and prolifically (2012, 2019, 2020). 

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, the communication style of women leaders of “rapport talk” proved advantageous in building relationship, trust and communicate solutions. Women leaders from the onset of the spread of Covid-19 relied on science and cautious consultation with experts to back their decisions involving national policy. This dynamic environment required collaboration, transparency with stakeholders at different levels both nationally and internationally which needed to be clearly and effectively communicated. They communicated their message of hard-hitting facts such as border closure and implementing the strictest lockdowns with vulnerability and empathy. They showed that they did not have all the answers and emotionally appealed to the public for the support. They clearly communicated covid policies within days of implementation and regularly connect with the people through televised briefs and Q&A sessions on Facebook live ensuring two way communication & implementation of policy. 

A good example of clear, emotional communication was showcased by Angela Merkel in her rare televised speech in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. She emotionally appealed for “social togetherness” and “solidarity” to brave the challenge in the darkest hour “since the Second World War” (Miller, 2020). For her initial response to covid-19 who was charting the way in the storm, the media worldwide praised Angela Merkel and compared other Western countries to Germany. Media commentator Ricardo Roa described Merkel as one "one of the very few" politicians worldwide who do not protect themselves but "lead… communicates with scientific rigor… with calm…disarms hysteria," (Mclean, 2020).

On the contrary, male leaders such as Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro communicated conflicting information and underplayed the threat to save the economies. 

In conclusion, women leaders have shown to the world and their people their capability of leading their nation in times of crisis. Among the many attributes, this article looks at compassion, risk-alert and communication styles of women leadership in times of crisis. Leaders are leaders irrespective of gender and as the pandemic continues and intensifies in many places, the resolve should be to meet the needs of the people in the best possible way.