Can it just be coincidence that the countries weathering the COVID-19 storm most effectively are run by female leaders? In recent weeks, endless column inches have been devoted to this theme.
Two figures on the global stage have stood out as the personification of polar opposites in this debate: the strongman leadership of US President Donald Trump and the empathetic and measured response of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. The latter’s country looks set to emerge from this crisis with deaths from the disease limited to double figures, while the former’s response appears chaotic and the death toll in the US is still rising.
Some commentators have already begun to draw comparisons closer to home. UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s bombastic leadership style undoubtedly has echoes of his larger-than-life counterpart’s across the pond, while Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appears to have taken inspiration from Ardern’s more caring and understanding approach, speaking directly to Scottish children’s fears over lockdown and letting us peek behind the curtain and see that she herself is struggling, as we all are, with perennial bad hair days.
So, to butcher Orwell: female leaders good, male leaders bad? Or is there more to it than that?
Do women make better leaders?
As someone who works for the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, it may be expected I would unquestionably buy into the narrative that women just make better leaders. Of course, the evidence shows that leadership traits are often gendered, and these differing traits have likely shaped how political leaders have responded to this crisis.
But that said, female political leaders globally constitute such a small sample size (still only 13 per cent of countries are led by women), it’d be unwise to make any sweeping generalisations based solely on gender. Additional factors are likely at play.
New Zealand, for example, is a relatively remote island of five million people, whereas the US has many major transit hubs and a population 66 times greater.
Political context matters, too – it can affect the tools and policy levers available to political leaders to tackle the crisis. In the case of Johnson and Sturgeon, the question of the UK constitutional settlement looms large, and could arguably be as pertinent as leadership styles in their respective responses to the pandemic.
A fractured UK
As we travel further into the COVID-19 crisis, the already-fractured UK devolution settlement is coming under increased strain, leading to tensions and divergent strategies. At the outset of the crisis there was relative unity from the four constituent nations of the UK in how to respond.
But a clear turning point came on 10 May, when Johnson changed government messaging from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. Roundly rejected by the devolved administrations, Sturgeon pre-empted his official announcement by declaring Scotland would not be moving to follow this new advice. Scots would continue to stay home instead.
Given that health is a devolved power, Nicola Sturgeon is well within her rights to employ an alternative public health strategy to the rest of the UK, and by the same token Johnson is also free to go down a different path in England. While this virus may know no borders, our political leaders clearly do.
As these intra-national tensions show, the Scottish question was not settled by the 2014 referendum on independence. The ‘once in a lifetime’ vote has led us to reassess how long one’s lifetime may be given Sturgeon advocated holding a second vote in 2020 (a suggestion promptly dropped in light of COVID-19). Whilst the second vote has been shelved, it has unquestionably not been binned. Even a pandemic can’t alter a party’s raison d’être.
The varied positioning from leaders throughout the UK in the response to COVID-19 has highlighted the sheer scale of unease at the heart of British politics – not even a global crisis can hold the four nations together. Citizens in Durham are staying alert, whilst citizens in Dumfries are staying at home. Even when we eventually emerge from this current crisis, another, much older political one will be waiting.
It’s clear from the UK context that leaders, men or women, are more than just a collection of individual styles – they’re a product of the political environment in which they operate and their partisan proclivities. It may not be simple or sexy, but constitutional politics and decades-old grudges (if not centuries-old, depending on who you talk to) are at play in Britain.
When the time comes to systematically analyse the political responses of this crisis, a more nuanced understanding of why some countries handled the response better than others will likely emerge. In the meantime, there’d be no harm in increasing that sample size of women political leaders.