Researchers: “Cultural Values,” Not Female Leaders, Shape Effective COVID-19 Response


Findings run counter to positive media coverage of Merkel, Ardern, and others.


As of this writing, chaos reigns in Washington, DC. Literally.

However, in other parts of the world where women hold the highest political offices in the land—Germany and New Zealand come to mind—the COVID-19 pandemic at least seems to be under control. That, and other crises, in fact.

Just looking at the numbers—per Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the pandemic—only 2.2% of the German population has been infected with SARS-CoV-2. In New Zealand, case totals equate to 0.004% of the population, and the country has essentially been virus-free for months.

In the US, for the record, 6.5% of the nation’s population (based on the 2010 census) has been infected, and that figure is growing by the day.

But while Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, among others, continue to earn plaudits for their handling of the pandemic, a group of researchers has called the perception that they are more effective leaders “in the time of COVID-19” into question.

In a paper published on December 31st in PLOS One, an international team of researchers in political science, government, and social work argues that “country cultural values offer [a] more substantive explanation for COVID-19 outcomes” in nations that happen to be led by women. Indeed, they say, their analysis of COVID-19-related deaths globally reveals “some limited support for lower reported fatality rates in countries led by women, [but] they are not statistically significant.”

“Our results suggest that countries led by women are qualitatively different from those led by men,” they write. “From a theoretical perspective, female leaders’ should be ideally positioned to govern better than male leaders through a global pandemic crisis [through their] focus on communal policies...”

To be clear, the paper is not dismissive of the role of female leaders and their respective—and different—styles of leadership in addressing the global pandemic.

Rather, the researchers acknowledge that “feminine gendered traits” (eg, “being caring and nurturing, being trustworthy, focusing on health, human security, education, and capacity-building, and being better at anticipatory policymaking that increases social buffers”) are helpful during health crises, and that women tend to prioritize preventive measures and “transformational” leadership that “builds… resilience.” Conversely, they say, men lean toward transactional leadership and reward “individual behavior and wait for problems to innovate solutions.”

However, as important as these different qualities are, the cultural factors that cause countries to elect female leaders in the first place likely have had greater influence over pandemic response than the leaders themselves.

In fact, they note, countries with greater female representation in national legislatures (eg, parliaments) generally fared more poorly in assessments of COVID-19 fatalities than those with male-dominated legislatures. Also performing more poorly, based on the death metric, were countries considered to be “free” (as opposed to “not free” countries, like China, arguably) as well as those on the higher end of wealth spectrum (based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

It’s likely that these countries tend to value the individual, rather than the collective, they argue, and are thus more likely to embrace public health strategies such as social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The underlying cultural values that differentiate countries who have fared better and worse during the pandemic, alongside gendered leadership patterns, will likely matter in the long run in determining how countries and their citizens fare in the post-pandemic landscape,” they write.

In other words, skip the “battle of the sexes” cliches, and focus instead on the qualities that make these leaders—and their countries—more effective as the pandemic rages on.

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