Limiting success to gender: female leaders in the coronavirus responses

by Nicole Leslie Charria

As Boris Johnson’s coronavirus-based opinion polls slide down the scale, many activists on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram are moving the conversation to the female leaders currently succeeding in their battles against Covid-19, posting videos, zines and memes about the women winning the fight.

One that stands out, in particular, is Leathermyjoe’s TikTok — a Jacinda Ardern costumed tribute song, complete with her viral reaction to the earthquake that hit New Zealand. He encapsulates the love and trust New Zealanders have for their leader in his playful twist of The Pussycat Dolls’ Don’t Cha, with lyrics such as “COVID we binned ya /And you know Jacinda was the one in charge”. She is one of many current female leaders being heralded by global media for their exemplary responses to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Erna Solberg, Nicola Sturgeon, Sanna Marin, Angela Merkel, Silveria Jacobs, Mette Frederiksen, Tsai Ing-wen and Katrín Jakobsdóttir are also ones we should pay attention to, with their countries showing the fewest deaths, the least damage to everyday life, and have been the quickest to safely end their quarantine measures. And they’ve got the numbers to show — New Zealand has now lifted all coronavirus restrictions as of June 8thTaiwan’s 7 deaths stand strong compared to China’s 83,325 cases; and Iceland triumphant having only lost 10 lives

Strategy not gender 

Of course, their strategic approaches are not down to gender; instead, efficient and decisive action- New Zealand first went into lockdown in late March, with the words “Kiwis — go home” communicating Ardern’s clear message to stay inside. Fast forward, and they’re pretty much winning the fight against coronavirus. 

Merkel’s meticulous track and trace system has allowed for Germany, who had 183,508 cases as of June 1st, to keep their death rate at under 5%. Combined with their strict lockdown, Germany rolled out its response system which allowed them to avoid overwhelming their health system. Retired doctors and medical students were brought in to help, and Germany had the advantage that their healthcare is well funded. Merkel’s focus on the elderly population prevented the spread to care homes — a problem Italy and England are struggling with now.

Using technology in responses has been the key in these leaders’ approaches. Iceland, who now will become a case study in the spread of Coronavirus, has around 40% of Icelanders using a coronavirus tracking app. Furthermore, the free coronavirus testing system, implemented by Jakobsdóttir, has made use of its island status to avoid the authoritarian-style lockdowns seen elsewhere.

Correct and efficient deployment and use of technology is one of many underlying factors in these country’s successes, yet instead of praising their success as leaders, we’re praising their successes as women.

The reality for female leaders 

Women leaders have always been held to a much higher standard than their male counterparts, scrutinised more harshly, and every word questioned twice. Appearances for women leaders matter more – their outfits, makeup and the shoes used to question competence and intelligence. Theresa May received three times as many comments on her appearance than Jeremy Corbyn, and Twitter went wild when Tracy Brabin MP was called (amongst other things) a “slapper” and “a tart” for exposing her shoulder in a dress in Parliament

The UK’s Parliament has a reputation as an institution dominated by sexual harassers, and when you consider the minority of women MPs (34% as of 2019), the way the system is skewed away from women is highlighted. By excluding half the population from positions of authority you perpetuate the gender gap and continue the vicious cycle: a lack of representation leads to more discrimination. Furthermore, governments and employers fail to account for issues pertaining more to women; childcare, maternity leave, and unsocial working hours to name but a few. 

The way women present themselves is used to judge their character and opinions before they open their mouths. From Thatcher’s voice lowering techniques, to Merkel and May’s matching trouser suits, women are constantly having to make traditionally female qualities appear more masculine; battling twice as hard to be given the commencement deserved. All before factoring in ethnicity, race, class or wealth differences. 

In addition to this, the way we address and treat female leaders (note Angela Eagle MP being told to “calm down dear”) is merely the tip of the iceberg when considering the obstacles women, and especially women of colour, face when getting into politics. From the way women are berated for displaying the same emotions as men, labelled as bossy and hysterical, instead of assertive and understanding; a constant distrust of knowledge in favour of a male counterpart; to blatant pay discrepancies. 

Take Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential interview campaign, for example, where Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times, compared to her 17. Sometimes unnoticeable, gendered microaggressions, such as those towards Clinton, represent the much wider silencing of women worldwide. Despite Trump’s campaign ads containing on average one lie every four seconds, Clinton continued to be perceived as the more dishonest candidate. Furthermore, she continues to be labelled in a way that doesn’t match her male counterparts’ way of behaving – ‘pathologically ambitious’, ‘unbridled ambition’ and ‘greedy’ to name but a few.

Unfamiliar leadership styles

The Coronavirus outbreak has shown us a new way of leadership, with successes not seen before. The cold, hard image previous women leaders donned is being replaced with different approaches, and the results are showing. New leadership styles are superseding harsh, traditionally male-associated leadership qualities, such as assertion, competitiveness and dominance.

From compassionate child-centric approaches from Norway’s Solberg who allowed children to submit and have questions answered, to collaborations such as Iceland’s work with technology and scientific groups to produce their tracing app, women are showing a new kind of leadership style. 

Results are pushing female-led countries ahead not only in terms of coronavirus response, but social development and quality of life. The current Finnish cabinet has a high proportion of women in representative roles and is widely considered one of the best countries in the world to be a woman. What previously may not have been considered a feasible leadership style is now seen positively in comparison to the China-blaming, journalist-bashing authoritarianism seen from the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and others. 

Time and time again we have been shown diversity leads to positive results. From better innovation to financial performance, the coronavirus response from female leaders is showing that gender diversity is beautiful, and, needed. The world is going in the right direction, but it has a long way to go. We must celebrate and revere successful female leaders, without reducing or accrediting achievements to their gender or ascribing successes to gendered traits, and pave the way for a future where gender is a description, not a mark of success. 


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