Do women really make better leaders?
Examining the age-old battle of the sexes in the context of the pandemic.
Anna Abraham, Founding Editor
Illustration by Rachel Mathew
The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light deficits in many sectors of society, economics, politics, governance and policy. The most stark, however, has been the need for an increase in female leadership with news headlines speaking of how female-led countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany have fared much better in the pandemic and reacted faster to the crisis.
Economists Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati of the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, carried out a study to examine the response of female leaders during the pandemic. Since only nineteen of the world’s countries are led by women, they studied these countries comparatively with neighbouring male-led countries of similar population, economy and other such factors. They found that the female-led countries enforced a lockdown in the country much before their male led country-counterparts did. These countries also saw half the deaths and much fewer cases. The women reacted much faster to the crisis with more risk averse policies, and an empathetic scientific approach. What does this mean - female leaders are less likely to take risks with lives. This, while many male leaders worried about the economy of their countries over the lives of the citizens they are bound to.
If Jacinda and Erna were to steer clear of such empathetic styles they are likely to be deemed cold and distant; if they take on approaches that are caring - ‘motherly’ or ‘soft’.
We might unnecessarily focus on the element of female leadership rather than female leadership styles. Research in laboratory experiments and assessment studies show that men tend to follow ‘task-oriented’ styles while women take on more interpersonal approaches. Men are more likely to take on autocratic or directive styles whereas women prefer more democratic and participatory approaches of management. These are especially true in cases of crises. This can be corroborated by the real life evidence of female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Germany, and Tsai Ing-wen, Prime Minister of Taiwan. They have been hailed for their communicative and empathetic styles of leadership. Angela Merkel has been applauded for addressing the public with clear scientific information about the pandemic, something you may assume to be standard. However, the likes of Trump and Modi might make it seem otherwise. In India, Shailaja JJ, former high-school teacher leading to the name - Shailaja Teacher, with a history of laudable crisis management (Nipah virus outbreak), has taken this pandemic head on and has delivered. Kerala has one of the fewest cases among the bigger states in the country and the Kerala model has been applauded time and again. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg was praised for the manner in which she addressed children directly about the virus. Another occurrence of this is when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed children’s concerns about tooth fairies and Easter bunnies in a press conference. She said they would continue functioning since they are essential workers. Such addressal may stem from the fact that both of them are mothers, nevertheless, it would be unfair to reduce such decision making to solely that. Societal expectations from female leaders, and women in general, are paradoxical within themselves. If Jacinda and Erna were to steer clear of such empathetic styles they are likely to be deemed cold and distant; if they take on approaches that are caring - ‘motherly’ or ‘soft’.
I wouldn’t think it right to outright claim that women are better leaders. Looking at leadership from a gendered lens is problematic, just as looking at a lot of things from such a lens is. Such a phenomenon of ‘better leadership’ could never really be studied. All it would achieve is the othering of a group and the pitting of one against the other. A study of this sort, I believe, would be against the feminist agenda of equality. I think it best to steer clear of the cultural trope that is the battle of the sexes. The point isn’t to prove one better than the other, but only to provide a levelled playing field. However, I do hope that such occurrences of exemplary female leadership in difficult times change beliefs that place men as more suited to leadership positions and more efficient at the workplace. Not only do we require more women at the workplace and other leadership arenas, we require people from diverse backgrounds for the creation of more inclusive spaces and better representative inclusive policy making.
An interesting factor to examine while looking at female leaders is the societies that elect them. Only 19 of the world’s 194 countries are led by women. Clearly, the countries electing women comprise of more progressive and inclusive societies. Such societies are more likely to elect more diverse groups to power. The commendable leadership of women and the consequent efficient policy making that has occurred during the pandemic is no stranger to the phenomenon of this election. Perhaps this rational thinking and acceptance among the public is also important to consider while looking at the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
Such societies are also likely to elect diverse leaders overall. This could include members of the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour, Dalit groups, ethnically diverse communities, etc. University of Michigan Professor, Scott Page, in his book, ‘Diversity of bonus’ talks about various factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, status, etc effect in which a person may cognise and understand situations. Owing to different social and economic upbringing, one can look at a situation from varied viewpoints. Arising at solutions from such a 360 degree perspective will invariably help in better policy making and decisions any team must undertake. A study, published in PNAS and conducted in Texas and Singapore put financially literate people in simulated markets. They were then asked to price the stocks in this simulated marker. The groups were divided into ethnically diverse groups and homogenous groups. The research found that the diverse groups were 58% more likely to price the stocks correctly. Those in the homogenous group were more likely to make pricing errors.
Inclusivity and diversity at the workplace, however, is far from the reality. In India, today, the Supreme court consists of a 40% Brahmin judge population and 93% of male judges. This when only 5% of the population is Brahmin and 52% of population is male, essentially making the court a Brahmin Hindu North Indian male entity. It is evident from rulings, especially those along religious lines, that the court favours the communities they belong to. Some say that laws around sexual assault completely side-line the possibility of men as victims, however I do believe that is the lack of women on the panel that causes this. A cis-man in a position of power, especially if the issue has no political or religious leaning, might overcompensate and hold women at a pedestal. This causes the side-lining to become an overbearing factor. However, if we have to look at the Triple Talaq case, it doesn’t seem as though it was truly a feminist verdict. It simply seemed to promote an agenda that the court is being forced to, and perhaps at some level agrees with, propel. Representation of different communities in positions of power would help drive better policy making and better problem solving. This is not a new discovery, plainly an ignored one.
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