Read Mahima’s article that asks some important questions-what does a leader look like in a post-pandemic world? Is there a set of leadership skills that have worked for some countries? What do autocracy and democracy achieve in similar circumstances? With the new paradigm shift in health, will politics adapt enough?

Are women better at leading than men are?

Mahima Moses is currently 20 years old and a student of psychology and anthropology, has always been interested in exploring the experiences of women and their lived realities in an intersectional manner i.e. understanding of the female body and its interactions with society at large.

What image first comes to your mind when you first hear the term-’leader’?

I picture a strong, firm and inspiring person, striking the ultimate power pose in front of crowds of thousands. However, this person- when I break it down further, is often tall, dressed smartly and ultimately- a man. The image that comes to my mind is a rich, white, able-bodied, straight man and I’m not alone in this perception. There is a dire lack of women in most leadership positions across almost every established industry in the professional sector. Why is this so?

Is it because women lack the same qualifications as men do in acquiring and performing effectively in these positions? Or is it the collective conditioning of a patriarchal society that opens its gates towards privileged men but slams them shut in front of females with ambitious aspirations? We simply, often involuntarily, cannot compute the prevalence of a leadership position and a woman. One of the areas in which this phenomenon is rampant in, is the field of politics and government. 

Against all odds, 2020 sees a small, yet powerful percentage of women occupying the highest seats available as the leaders of their nations. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, these women and their decision making and executing skills have garnered a lot of attention amidst this crisis. The prime ministers and leaders of New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Taiwan and Sint Maarten- all women, are being praised for their immediate and effective responses to news of the virus. Some of these measures involve- immediately shutting down the nation’s borders, instructing a clampdown on all outside activity (except those of essential services)- urging citizens to stay indoors and quarantined and an increase in accessible and available testing among other measures. The results of these actions are seen in the numbers- lesser cases and flattening of the curve. While their actions have been objectively praised, there are deeper issues at play here that are directly related to gender and its effect on leadership. Research studies have shown the impact and differences in our socialization on the basis of gender all have an effect on development of leadership styles. 

There are two clear facets to leadership- the ‘task’ dimension that includes goal setting, organization, direction, and control; and the ‘relationship’ dimension involving support, communication, interaction, and active listening. Prevailing research conveys that male leaders are more focused on the former and show more of an autocratic leadership style, while female leaders are more focused on the latter, showcasing a more democratic and participative leadership style. 

In this case however, we can observe that these female leaders in 2020, have struck a perfect balance between the above mentioned dimensions of leadership- they have perfectly executed both the task and relationship dimension in their roles. These leaders have been praised for their communication strategies with their citizens- delivering simple, yet powerful official and informal messages to their population that radiates practicality and empathy. In addition to this, these leaders have listened and considered the advice and opinions of a diverse spectrum of experts and have exuded the importance of empathy, compassion, listening and collaboration in their tackling of this issue. 

Their response stands in direct contrast to the measures taken by nations led by male leaders. The worst-hit countries reporting staggeringly large numbers of cases such as  the United States, Brazil, Russia, India, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy and France are all led by men. One of the reasons for these high numbers could be the leadership styles of these men- autocratic, aggressive and hypermasculine. For example, in their analysis of the situation in the US,  the New York Times  states that a reason for the lack of effective measures could be owed to- “ the traditional idea of a strong American leader who is one that projects power, acts aggressively and above all shows no fear, thereby cowing the nation’s enemies into submission”. So, it could be possible that listening and collaborating with a diverse group of experts is not too high on the agenda list of these leaders as the masculinity they perform gives them no room to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. Trump’s response to the pandemic illustrates just this behaviour- “His remarks, right from when the first case was detected in January 22 till now, have shifted from being dismissive at first, to defensive, then combative (in his comments to reporters), in parts conciliatory, and finally, when cases and deaths rose sharply, pinning the blame on China for not stopping it at the source”.

There are two things to be mindful of after reading the above. The first is, we must be wary of applying a halo effect on these leaders- i.e. believing that the success of these few women, does  not guarantee that all female leaders will respond to crises efficiently. The purpose of this article is not to pit gender against gender but to be aware of the various socio-cultural elements that ultimately culminate and impact the political. 

Secondly, it is not the sole responsibility or efforts of the leader that ensures success, but the willingness and qualities of their citizens as well. What these cases reveal is the progressive and vigilant nature of the nation’s population in following instructions from women as well as electing them in the first place. As is said in the following quote- “What if countries led by women are managing the pandemic more effectively not because they are (led by)women, but because the election of women is a reflection of societies where there is a greater presence of women in many positions of power”. 

It is our duty, after considering all of the above, to challenge our immediate and initial thoughts of associating a leader with only a male. The women we’ve spoken about are direct contradictions to this thought and representative of a large number of women like them who will also succeed in occupying similar roles. It is possible that gender may not be the sole reason for a leader’s success or failure even though it impacts one’s leadership style. However, our  main role in this matter is to encourage and support women and other disadvantaged populations, in their journey to becoming tomorrow’s assertive leaders. The burden of the task at hand does not rest solely on the shoulders of the leader, but is our duty to implement her instructions as well. As   Alexis Kanda- Olmstead, an educator at Colorado State University, says in her Ted Talk entitled-  ‘The Science of Women’s Leadership’- Allow yourself to be led by women”

As they say, the future is indeed female.

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