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Are women leaders a better fit for the COVID-19 response?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for strong effective leadership during complex emergencies. There has been a lot of media coverage applauding the leadership of women during the pandemic, along with claims that U.S. states governed by women have better health outcomes than those led by men. Research comparing the leadership of men and women is not new. Some studies show that women are preferred as leaders during a time of poor company performance (Ryan et al., 2011). None of the previous research focuses on a crisis as complicated and severe as the current pandemic though – until now. In this post I discuss recently published research examining women’s leadership during COVID-19 in the United States and internationally.

Most of the previously published evidence on women’s leadership focuses on organizational leadership and monetary outcomes. In fact, Walsh et al. (2003) find only 2% of studies center on societal welfare outcomes, e.g., health and security. People perceive the leadership of women to fit during times of business downturn, so they are more likely to be selected for leadership positions at these times (Haslam and Ryan, 2008). This may be because women tend to be more empathetic than men (Toussaint and Webb, 2005), which in turn affects their communication styles. I observed this effect in a recent U.S. study, which I describe next.

Women’s leadership during COVID-19 in the United States
This analysis shows states governed by women had fewer COVID-19 deaths than those governed by men.
Sergent and Stajkovic (2020) use a mixed-methods approach with data on death tolls, stay-at-home orders and governor briefings to analyze whether women’s leadership is associated with fewer COVID-19 deaths in U.S. states. In their quantitative analysis, the authors use analysis of covariance to estimate the relationship of COVID-19 deaths and the timing of statewide stay-at-home orders to governor sex. They use publicly available data on COVID-19 deaths up to May 5, 2020. They consider a variety of covariates including sociodemographic and COVID-19-specific variables like mask mandates, state-employee travel bans, curfews and ventilator-sharing programs. Their analysis shows states governed by women had fewer COVID-19 deaths than those governed by men. This finding aligns with previous research findings that women are better during a time of crisis.

Figure 1: Interaction of governor sex and issuance of stay-at-home orders; Source: Figure 1 from Sergent and Stajkovic (2020)

As you can see in figure 1, there is a significant association between governor sex and the issuance of an early stay-at-home order. The analysis also shows fewer deaths in states governed by women even when stay-at-home orders were issued by both sexes at the same time.

The researchers attempt to explain this difference with a qualitative analysis of the pandemic briefings conducted by each governor between April 1 and May 5, 2020. They use theme dictionaries from applied psychology research to analyze the briefings with a focus on feelings and confidence. Based on the criteria given by the dictionaries, the authors find women governors expressed more empathy and awareness for the feelings of their constituents. Women governors also focused on work and money in their briefings, both major concerns for many people. Lastly, women governors displayed more confidence when addressing the public, which could explain why their stay-at-home orders turned out to be more effective in reducing deaths.

Women’s leadership during COVID-19 around the world
This trend of women leaders and better COVID-19 outcomes is not only seen in the U.S., but internationally as well.
This trend of women leaders and better COVID-19 outcomes is not only seen in the U.S., but internationally as well. Garikipati and Kambhampati (2020) use a 194-country dataset to analyze similar national trends of whether gender matters in leadership during COVID-19. The authors use publicly available COVID-19 case and death data for all countries between January 21, 2020, and May 19, 2020, along with sociodemographic and economic data. Women lead only 19 countries. The authors use the nearest-neighbor matching method to compare similar countries with leaders of differing genders – similarities include GDP per capita, population, population in urban areas and number of elderly dependents. They then examine policy decisions regarding COVID-19, specifically timing of a national lockdown.

The results show there have been almost double the number of deaths in countries led by men (mean = 2,021) compared to countries led by women (mean = 1,107). Countries led by men also have a higher number of cases, but not as great of a difference compared to deaths. Figure 2 below presents the mean cases and deaths for countries along with summary statistics of the matching covariates.

Figure 2: Statistics for matching covariates and dependent variables by leader gender; Source: Table 1 from Garikipati and Kambhampati (2020)

Garikipati and Kambhampati also conduct an analysis where they remove countries from the sample that may have a disproportionate impact on the results – specifically, Germany, New Zealand and the U.S. – to test the robustness of their results. Removing these countries strengthens the connection between women leaders and a lower number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The authors use the same matching method described above to also conduct a policy analysis to explore the timing of when women leaders instituted a national lockdown compared to men. The findings show when compared to men, women leaders implemented a lockdown while the number of reported deaths in their countries was still low. The authors hypothesize that this response can explain the difference in the number of deaths at the beginning of the pandemic (the time period analyzed in the article). There is no difference in case numbers at the time of lockdown. Based on this analysis, women leaders responded quicker and more decisively regarding the implementation of national lockdowns.

What I’m left wondering

After reading (and now writing about) these two studies, I’m left wondering about a few things.

First, I wonder about the accuracy of the data on COVID-19 deaths. U.S. states or countries may have different criteria for reporting a COVID-19-related death, which can affect the comparison between them. The international study uses data through May 19, 2020, but does not give a starting point for the dataset. This starting point can vary greatly across countries. I suspect a lot of future research will aim to answer the question: when did the pandemic officially start.

It would be interesting to see this research continued at different points of the pandemic through to full vaccination. Will U.S. states and countries led by women continue to have better health outcomes?
Second, both studies focus on the beginning of the pandemic and the initial responses and policy choices of leaders. Both studies acknowledge that the results could change over time. It would be interesting to see this research continued at different points of the pandemic through to full vaccination. Will U.S. states and countries led by women continue to have better health outcomes?

Third, the timing of lockdowns and other mitigation policies is an aspect of these studies that I think can be looked at on their own, regardless of gender. Such research would provide us with findings on leadership during public health emergencies, in terms of gender as well as other factors. For example, the U.S. study examines several covariates in relation to COVID-19 deaths. Mask mandates and ventilator-sharing programs are both statistically significant in relation to deaths, but the researchers did not include governor sex in the analysis as they did with timing of a lockdown.

Finally, the qualitative aspect of the U.S. study (the analysis of public briefings) can be useful when leaders are deciding how to address the public during a crisis. I am curious to know if these trends continued throughout the pandemic and how it might affect the leadership style of men in the future. There will certainly be many studies conducted after this pandemic and leadership style should certainly be one of the focal points.


Photo credit: Corbis-VCG/Getty

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