Have countries led by women coped better with Covid-19?

Eight months ago, the tooth fairy flitted into New Zealand politics. During a national address, the country’s premier Jacinda Ardern declared that, although she was placing the population into a tight lockdown to combat Covid-19, “We do consider both the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny to be essential workers.” The video of her speech went viral.

Was this just a piece of political theatre? Perhaps. But the humour, care and humanity it showed raise an intriguing question: have female leaders been better at rallying their voters to combat the pandemic than men?

No doubt many readers will have their own views. And, as it happens, Covid-19 has hit the world when, for the first time in history, we arguably have a big enough sample size of male- and female-led countries to compare (this in itself is striking). If you look at the examples of female-led nations — New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Belgium (for most of the year), Taiwan and Scotland — the data is mixed but thought-provoking.

Calculations by the FT on morbidity rates, testing rates and the stringency of lockdown measures in the OECD club of developed countries are revealing. Female-led countries did not impose stricter conditions, such as school closures and travel restrictions, than those headed by men, according to an Oxford university tracker. But it does seem that countries with female heads of government had better results than their male counterparts on death rates.

Chart showing that countries with female leaders tend to have lower Covid-19 death rates and better economic performance

As of the end of November, New Zealand had a cumulative death rate of 5.1 per million, the lowest in the OECD. And in Iceland, Norway and Finland, the deaths per million have been kept well below 100. In Denmark and Germany, they stayed under 250. That is much better than in male-led countries: in the Netherlands, France and Sweden, the rate was above 500. In Italy, the UK and US it was above 780. In Spain, it was nearly 950. The exception to the gender pattern was Belgium, which had a female premier to September this year — and a death rate of 1,360 per million.

We also know that female-led countries test more rigorously for coronavirus. If you look at their average number of tests carried out per confirmed case, in June it was 244, whereas in male-led countries it was 155.

Chart showing that female leaders have more rigorous Covid-19 testing  strategies than male ones

We can probably rule out trust in government as the differentiating factor. In New Zealand, 77 per cent of the country is satisfied with the ­government’s use of scientific advice. There are high levels in other female-led countries such as Germany, Norway and Denmark. However, male-led countries such as China, Argentina and the Netherlands also have high levels of trust — and decidedly mixed records. Perhaps most notable is that, at 18 per cent satisfaction, the US is at the bottom of the trust list.

The correlation of a female premier and a low death rate does not show causality, of course. The presence of a female leader might be the symptom, rather than the cause, of factors that help a country to fight Covid-19. One reason why Scandinavian countries have more female leaders is that they are more progressive in every sense. And insofar as that “p” quality reflects education as well, this fosters a willingness to believe science and heed government advice.

It also helps that Scandinavian countries are small and are more equal, which makes it easier to persuade the population to accept shared sacrifices. The same point applies to New Zealand and Switzerland. So, perhaps a better way to frame the debate is not simply to focus on whether “male” or “female” leaders have the best track records, but to ask whether there are qualities traditionally associated (rightly or wrongly) with women that are needed now from all our leaders.

Women of the Year 2020

From politicians and novelists to scientists and activists, the FT profiles this year’s game-changing women. Here are some to watch out for:

December 2: Jane Fraser, next Citigroup CEO

December 3: Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission

December 3: Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan

December 3: Prof. Sarah Gilbert, Oxford vaccinologist

December 4: Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy

December 4: Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter

I suspect there are. One of these is a lack of hubris or, more accurately, sufficient humility to listen to scientists and learn lessons from elsewhere. Another is a penchant for empathy. After all, as Gus O’Donnell, the (male) former head of the British civil service, recently pointed out in a speech to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, pandemics cannot be beaten by medical science alone; instead, “containing the pandemic is achieved mostly by changing behaviour”.

Autocratic regimes can deliver this change by fiat. Democratic ones need to be more persuasive. That is most easily achieved by a leader who shows enough empathy to talk to people in a language they understand. That is perhaps Ardern’s greatest weapon, along with many other female leaders.

Do men display this all-important combination of empathy and humility? Yes. Joe Biden, the incoming US president, made empathy a key part of his campaign. Justin Trudeau, the premier of Canada, often demonstrates it. Even Boris Johnson is trying now: he just took a leaf out of Ardern’s book this month, and promised Britain’s children that Santa will still visit during Christmas.

But when we finally escape from Covid-19, it will be interesting to see if (or how) our concept of leadership has changed as a result of the crisis. And whether we will have more female leaders in place. I suspect we will.

Data reporting by Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at [email protected]

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