Story at a glance

  • Since April it has been widely speculated that female world leaders disproportionately succeeded at keeping COVID-19 cases at bay in their respective countries.
  • A new analysis of 194 countries published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum provides solid evidence to the theory.

This year, world leaders have largely been measured by their responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Soon after the outbreak began to quickly spread, a theory emerged that female leaders had been reacting exceptionally well to the pandemic, keeping infection levels low in their country and coming up with inventive ways to keep their citizens safe and well-informed. 

Back in April, we spoke with Kathleen Gersen, a professor of sociology at New York University, about the idea that female-led countries have fared better against the spread of the virus — she told us it’s not that simple. 

“We do need to be careful about lumping men and women into homogenous categories and keep in mind that the percentage of female national and global leaders is much smaller,” said Gersen. “But with that being said, among the countries which have done a better job of handling this pandemic and the spillover effects that it has had, women are disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree.”

Now, a new analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, has definitively shown that countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” COVID-19 outcomes, often locking down earlier and therefore suffering half as many deaths on average as those led by men.

“Our results clearly indicate that women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities,” said Supriya Garikipati, a developmental economist at Liverpool University, who co-authored the study with Reading University’s Uma Kambhampati. Garakipati says that in almost all cases, female leaders locked down their country earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances, and that while the economic effect of those decisions may last longer, they also saved numerous lives. 

Critics may argue that the number of female world leaders is a small data set, as only 19 of the nearly 200 countries are led by women. To offset this imbalance, the authors created what they call “nearest neighbour” countries, pairing female-led countries like Germany, New Zealand and Bangladesh with Britain, Ireland and Pakistan, respectively. 

What they found is that even after clear and frequently cited outliers such as New Zealand and Germany were removed from the statistics, the case for the relative success of female leaders was only strengthened.

In an essay on the power of charisma and a new kind of “wartime president,” David A. Bell, a historian at Princeton University, writes, “A different sort of charismatic leadership has proven far more effective, with women leaders shining. Ardern, Merkel, Frederiksen, and Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan have emphasized compassion and patience, rather than war and victory. They have not posed as commanders dispatching brave conscripts off to the front, but rather as mothers and daughters sharing the fears and privations of their fellow citizens.”

“Political charisma is an elusive phenomenon...It depends on the public recognizing a special quality in a leader and feeling an intense attraction as a result. Perhaps, by the time the crisis ends, worldwide understandings of political charisma will have changed. The figure of the compassionate mother may come to have greater appeal than that of the aggressive wartime commander,” Bell adds. 

Indeed, evidence from the study suggests that the “empathetic and decisive” communication style by women improved the immediate outcomes from the coronavirus pandemic in their respective countries. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel’s effective communication with citizens about the pandemic's dangers and quick actions to free up intensive care beds have been lauded internationally and resulted in hospitals that weren't overwhelmed, even taking in airlifted patients from other countries like Italy and Spain.

Says Garkipati, “Our findings show that COVID outcomes are systematically and significantly better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive policy responses they adopted. Even accounting for institutional context and other controls, being female-led has provided countries with an advantage in the current crisis."


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Published on Aug 21, 2020