Thanks to social media and news reports, people realize that some of the best performing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, and Taiwan – include a government led by a woman. Is this just a statistical anomaly, or does it reflect a deeper leadership advantage that women possess?
Scholars have been studying the differences between female and male leadership performance for decades, yielding many valuable insights, some of which are summarized by psychologists Alice Eagly at Northwestern University, USA, and Linda Carli at Wellesley College, USA, in a research paper titled “The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence.”
The research involves classifying leadership methods, identifying which ones are more successful, and then examining how men and women differ in their propensity to use each type of leadership method.
A first key difference is that women tend to exhibit interpersonally-oriented and democratic leadership styles, meaning that they allow subordinates to participate in decision-making. Whereas men tend to display more autocratic styles, where subordinates are excluded and are simply assigned tasks to perform. These differences are attributed to the tendency that women possess better social skills than men, as well as the fact that women are more likely than men to have to deal with peers and subordinates who are resistant to their leadership, therefore requiring them to placate their colleagues with a more inclusive leadership style.
This difference is potentially crucial in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the great deal of uncertainty regarding the best course of action to take. In linear and well-understood activities, such as building a car, management knows the most efficient processes, and so departures from autocratic leadership styles are potentially frivolous, as they will not yield information that is useful to decision makers.
In contrast, during an unprecedented pandemic, where even epidemiologists – let alone economists – are unsure of how to act, many individuals will likely hold various bits of key information required to make the right decision, and effective dialogue is a critical step in drawing that information out.
A second key difference is that women are more likely to display transformational leadership styles, meaning that they focus on the future rather than the present, and that they strengthen the organization by inspiring followers’ commitment and creativity. In contrast, men are more likely to exhibit a transactional leadership style, which involves conventional activities such as clarifying subordinates’ responsibilities, rewarding them for meeting objectives, and censuring them for failures. Men are also more likely to demonstrate laissez-faire leadership style – essentially a euphemism for dereliction of duty, i.e., failing to take responsibility for management.
Again, in the context of COVID-19, the benefits of transformational leadership are self-evident due to the exceptional nature of the crisis, and the absence of a mature and structured solution to the problem. Needless to say, during a pandemic, laissez-faire leadership is potentially catastrophic, as many people have unfortunately discovered.
While such findings do not imply that only women should be leaders, they should make us ask questions about why women are so heavily under-represented in certain leadership positions, and consider corrective action. The UN Women website presents some worrying statistics for 2019: Only 24 percent of national parliamentarians were women, and fewer than 25 countries had either a female head of government or head of state (excluding unelected heads of state, such as Queen Elizabeth II).
Moreover, a 2012 paper by economist Lori Beaman at Northwestern University, USA, and several colleagues found that the benefits of empowering women are not simply restricted to the performance of the organizations or countries that they lead; they also extend to future generations by improving the aspirations and educational attainment of girls who are yet to enter the labor force.
Professor Beaman and her coauthors found this by studying the impact of a 1993 law in India that reserved leadership positions for women in a selection of village councils. In the villages selected, adolescent girls surveyed expressed higher levels of ambition, and spent less time on household chores, allowing them to close the prevailing educational gap with boys.
These kind of behavioral changes help the next generation of women to realize their potential, constituting an extra reason for giving the current generation the chance to lead.
The overt success of global heads of government, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel, makes it tempting to do a more systematic comparison of men and women holding important leadership positions. However, Professors Eagly and Carli cautioned about the use of crude performance measures to gauge the effectiveness of female leaders, especially in environments that are traditionally dominated by men. If prejudice toward women is present in a workplace, it can severely impair female leaders’ ability to do their job, requiring a more nuanced approach to evaluating the effectiveness of those female leaders.
Ultimately, the goal is to reach a situation where, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it: “In the future, there will be no female leaders, there will just be leaders.”
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.SHOW MORE