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COVID-19 | That women leaders are faring better is simplistic and flawed thinking

Attributing the accomplishments of women leaders to just their sex detracts from the value of their contribution. It’s furthers the same sexist stereotypes that have historically held women back

July 25, 2020 / 10:23 AM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a lot of discussion about the role women leaders have played in handling the crisis. Hailed as the voice of reason among the Coronavirus chaos, many women leaders have attracted praise for effective messaging and decisive action.

In Europe, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway — nations that are winning favourable notice in the fight against COVID-19 — are all led by women. In Asia, some of the more successful battles with the virus have been in areas where women have been in charge. They include Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as the small Indian state of Kerala where a woman holds the health portfolio.

Last week, New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, announced that it was largely successful in meeting its ambitious goal of eliminating, rather than just controlling, outbreaks of COVID-19, one of the few countries in the world to do so.

The success of these women leaders during such a challenging time has led to comparisons with many male leaders and ignited a wider discussion around male vs female leadership styles.

On the surface, it’s tempting to conclude that women are indeed faring better in the crisis, because of their gender. That line of thinking is simplistic and flawed.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Exceptions To The Rule

For one, it doesn’t take into account an obvious caveat — not all women leaders are faring quite as well. For example, Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès, has had one of the worst outbreaks in Europe in terms of deaths per capita with 9,212 deaths among its 11.5 million residents. Then, closer home there is Bangladesh, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, where the government is arresting citizens, doctors and students for criticising its lacklustre response to the pandemic. This even as it registers thousands of new cases every day, with more than 400 people dead. In the United States, Las Vegas’ mayor Carolyn Goodman told CNN that it’s time to open her city’s casinos because the Ebola epidemic prepared the casinos for the safe handling of COVID-19.

Similarly, there are also many countries with male leaders, such as South Korea, Vietnam and Greece, which have also succeeded in keeping infection rates down. The reality is that there are competent female and male leaders guiding their countries through this crisis, and there are those who are struggling.

Then, there is also the question of who we are comparing the women leaders to — in most cases, a group of incompetent, science-denialist men, who also happen to be the world’s strongmen, and therefore commanding most media attention. The American president’s dismissive attitude in the early stages of the pandemic and the British Prime Minister’s snobbishness in handling the crisis will be remembered for years to come.

Numbers And Styles

That argument is one about leadership styles, and here too the comparisons don't tell us anything useful, because there can’t be a cookie-cutter approach here.

To put things in perspective, women account for fewer than 7 percent of the world’s leaders and 24 percent of politicians, essentially making them a minority. At the start of the year, only 15 of the 193 United Nations countries were led by women, according to Axios, and that’s now dropped to 13.

Even within the ambit of this small group of women, there isn’t a ‘standard style’ that fits all. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's strict, disciplinarian style of leadership is different from Ardern's leadership style of empathy and politics rooted in social justice.

Inclusive Societies And Values

This is not to take away from the fact that there are certain countries with women leaders that have managed the crisis efficiently. The right question to ask though is not whether they are better leaders, but why women are disproportionately represented among countries that have managed the crisis well.

What if the presence of a woman leader is not a cause of better governance, but a signal that a country has more inclusive political institutions and values? What if the countries that are managing the pandemic better have societies where women find greater representation in all positions of powers?

The World Economic Forum’s annual study on gender parity supports this hypothesis. As per the listing of the forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, which ranks countries in terms of their gender equality performance, those that have fought the pandemic most effectively — Norway, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand and Germany — are all led by women and rank high on the list.

Experts point out that women may find it easier gaining power in “a political culture in which there is relative support and trust in the government — and that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men.”

In these countries, power is enhanced by the complementary nature of two genders with contributing gender-balanced environments producing better outcomes.

Strong Leaders

So, is there anything that we can say with certainty about women leaders? It’s hard to conclude, because any leader, male or female, who reaches the top echelon of political order has to be unusual in some way, but a thing that stands out among women is this: for women leaders to be elected at all, they have to be highly competent and outstanding. This is especially true for countries where entry barriers for women are already set high.

It may also be why we are seeing such strong leadership from these women. They are not just qualified, but more prepared to do this very, very well.

Attributing the accomplishments of women leaders to just their sex is reductionist and detracts from the value of their contribution. It’s detrimental to the cause of progressive politics, because it furthers the same sexist stereotypes that have historically held women back.

Let’s evaluate individual leaders on the merit of their work, instead of their gender. After all, we do not say that Russian President Valdimir Putin is a controversial male leader.

Finally, women leaders are not the reason for a country faring well. They are only a reflection of a society that trusts and honours them and their work.

Shikha Sharma is a New-Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer. Twitter: @ShikhaSharma304. Views are personal.
Shikha Sharma

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