Story at a glance
- Early in the pandemic, a pattern began to emerge among countries that were faring better during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Studies have shown that countries where women are the heads of government are seeing better COVID-19 outcomes.
- A new study analyzes how the communication skills of these leaders varied from others.
The question of "what if women ruled the world" is getting less hypothetical these days as experts and studies note that countries governed by women have “systematically and significantly better” COVID-19 outcomes. Now a new study suggests that differences in communication might help explain why.
"The contribution women have made has not earned them an equal say in COVID-19 decision-making. They remain in the minority on COVID-19 task forces — expected to run health systems while men make decisions that impact all our health and lives," Roopa Dhatt, executive director of Women in Global Health and one of the authors of the study, told Medical News Today. "Yet, it has been noted that when women do make decisions, the outcomes are positive — COVID-19 deaths in women-led countries have been six times lower than in countries led by men."
While women make up roughly 70 percent of the health care workforce both in the United States and around the world, they are far less represented at leadership levels. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were 17 women acting as heads of government, 10 of whom were included in the study due to limited access to records in some countries.
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The study compares the transcripts of public speeches and statements made by 20 world leaders, between Feb. 26 and April 6. While the number of speeches made by each individual leader varied, the total came out to 61 by women and 61 by men, or 122 in total.
“In times of emergency and in times of crisis we see these speeches as being a way to motivate and inspire citizens,” said Sara Dada, a doctoral candidate at University College Dublin and a co-author of the study. “During an emergency people are really looking toward the leadership for guidance, for instruction.”
Research shows a direct correlation between the example of leaders and their followers. In Brazil, where President Bolsonaro downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing measures were weaker in parts of the country where support for the president was strong. In the United States, former President Trump initially refused to wear a face mask, which one study calculated could have been responsible for anywhere between 4,000 to 12,000 COVID-19 deaths.
At the same time, the study found that male leaders including former President Trump and Bolsonaro were among those who used more aggressive language in reference to the pandemic, including war metaphors.
“Men were more likely to use fear-based tactics to inspire citizens, whereas more women focused on empathy and used personal examples to promote solidarity and unity,” said Dada.
While countries’ response strategies likely also hinge on the values of their populations, cultures and society, she said, the language used to communicate them varied. Women were the only leaders to mention uncertainty, trust and mental health along with substance abuse issues, domestic violence, unions, migrants and refugees. On the other hand, men were the only leaders to directly address protests and rallies and use language of isolationism, disadvantage and denialism.
The study doesn’t assess whether one method of communication is more effective than the other, but notes in its title "Words Matter."
"We have seen in previous disease outbreaks, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, how a fear based or nonchalant narrative can be disastrous for an effective response," the authors concluded in the study. "This highlights the critical role that communication plays in public health."
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