Covid-19 outcomes in female-led countries are “systematically and significantly better” than in nations led by men, according to new research from the University of Liverpool and the University of Reading.
Entitled Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?, the joint report – based on data from 194 different countries over the first three months of the crisis – points out that female leaders locked down earlier than their male counterparts, and on average their populations suffered half as many Covid-19 deaths. (Garikipati & Kambhampati, August 2020)
Indeed, even though Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand was the first state to record zero cases over consecutive days since the start of the pandemic, and Angela Merkel’s Germany was the first to resume top-level sport, when those nations were trimmed from the dataset (along with the US on the male side), that only boosted the case for the relative success of female world leaders.
As only 19 of the relevant countries are female led, the study benchmarked them against male-led ‘nearest neighbours’, comparable on the basis of metrics such as population size, GDP and proportion of elderly residents.
In an 18 August statement, study co-author Professor Supriya Garikipati of the University of Liverpool Management School said: “Nearest-neighbour analysis clearly confirms that when women-led countries are compared to countries similar to them along a range of characteristics, they have performed better, experiencing fewer cases as well as fewer deaths.” (University of Liverpool Press Office, 18 August 2020)
Garikipati acknowledged that the findings seem to play into gender stereotypes around risk aversion – but said that while female leaders “were risk averse with regard to lives, they were prepared to take significant risks with their economies by locking down early.” This indicates that “risk aversion may manifest differently in different domains, with women leaders being significantly more risk averse in the domain of human life, but more risk taking in the domain of the economy.”
On 19 August, study lead Professor Uma Kambhampati at the University of Reading’s School of Politics, Economics & International Relations said: “Our analysis shows that the decisions taken to lock down countries earlier by their female leaders has saved lives. The months ahead will tell us what the economic toll of these decisions is.” (University of Reading Press Office, 19 August 2020)
What should organisations take away from the study’s insights into female leadership?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Although these studies are fascinating, and the comparisons really grab media attention because there are such stark gender differences in this field, to me what’s really important is that we now have evidence that settles the debate. Of course women can assume leadership roles with confidence and conviction – and of course they can be successful. And let’s hope it’s not just crisis scenarios in which we’re able to demonstrate the talents that contribute to the sort of data examined in this new report.”
Cooper notes: “Evidence indicating that diversity on boards leads to better outcomes is certainly piling up. And if we look at the risk-aversion thread of the Liverpool and Reading study, that was a major theme of leadership reports published in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. There was a suggestion that females would have been less likely to make the sorts of decisions that set the preconditions for the crash. Since then, a lot of evidence has emerged to support that view – and this new report can be seen in the same context, with relevance to the current crisis.”
She adds: “That strengthens the case not only for greater gender inclusivity, but broader diversity in every respect, covering all underrepresented groups. There are many ways of leading and managing organisations, some of which are more successful than others. But the big lesson that comes out of this study is that female leadership can be hugely beneficial from a governance perspective.
“Let’s keep watching this space and gathering more evidence, so we can ensure it’s not just times of crisis for which we’re able to make these claims.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity
Image of Jacinda Ardern courtesy of Alexandros Michailidis, via Shutterstock