I’ve stopped counting the number of times overseas friends have told me how lucky I am to live in NZ. Not just as a result of our science-led and successful strategy to keep Covid-19 at bay, but because we are led by a woman: “She’s nice, normal, sane, effective. Men are ruining the planet. I wish she was the prime minister/president here”.
The yearning for competence and caring is a poignant reminder that followers of the world don’t hold huge expectations of our leaders. The utter disdain that my friends hold for their heads of state reinforces that idea. Leaving profanities aside, “incompetent”, “arrogant”, “selfish”, “uncaring”, “mean”, “stupid”, “shortsighted” provides a sense of the reputations Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Trump and their brethren have built.
Perhaps female leadership is the coming zeitgeist, despite the perpetual underrepresentation of women in the upper ranks of most organisations?
Decried at home for her compassionate response to Syrian migrants, Angela Merkel has seen her approval ratings turnaround through her pandemic leadership. Jacinda Ardern rode a wave of gratitude and relief into a second term as PM of New Zealand. Denmark’s Mette Fredriksen, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Erna Solberg from Norway have all been singled out for their effective leadership.
But effective is too easily conflated with popular. Do the data show that female led countries are doing better than those led by men?
Lorenzo Fioramonti, Luca Coscieme and Katherine Trebeck showed that in the early phase of the pandemic countries led by men suffered six times more deaths than those led by women. Female-led countries were forecast by the World Bank to experience a decline in GDP around 5.5 per cent, while countries with male leaders were expected to fall by more than 7 per cent.
Other research is suggestive that women may do things differently to men and produce better outcomes. When researchers from the Universities of Reading and Liverpool looked at the data they found no statistically significant differences between states based on gender. But when they matched countries with their nearest neighbours (meaning similar populations, healthcare, proportions of elderly and so on) they did. Female-led countries had fewer deaths. They also differed in their policy responses: women leaders reacted faster and were more likely to close borders, test more and prioritise physical wellbeing over economic wellbeing.
In business, there is some evidence that firms led by women adopt longer-term perspectives and are less inclined to take catastrophic risks. Female managers attract better ratings in 360 surveys than do men across a wide range of competencies.
But these impression may be an example of a flaw in how humans think. Women leaders attract greater attention just because they are rare – they lead only 18 countries. If I pay attention mostly to the appalling mismanagement in England and America (both led by men) and then look to NZ or Germany or Taiwan (all led by capable women), drawing the conclusion that women are better leaders is actually a demonstration of the availability bias (basing reasoning on what’s to hand, rather than all there is). On the other hand consider the tiny state of Sint Maarten, also led by a woman, which has had a proportionally bad second wave and ranks in the top 20 for deaths per million people.
There is not enough data to tell. And yet that impression lingers.
Looked at another way, it may not be that the countries that did best in preserving their citizens lives and livelihoods were all led by women. However, it certainly is the case that those countries most profligate with death are led by men –the worst performing 15 states are all male led.
It’s also blindingly clear some male leaders on that list – of Mexico, Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom share personality characteristics best summed up by Norman Dixon in his superb book ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’ as possessing an “insatiable desire for admiration with avoidance of criticism, and an equally devouring urge for power and positions of dominance”.
But own up – these people continue to be elected and appointed.
Bluster, arrogance, self-interest and stupidity are not disqualifiers for high office if they also come with charisma and confidence.
Good (and bad) leadership is not likely to be the prerogative of any gender. Good leaders all display a regard for the wellbeing of their followers, are humble and open to criticism, behave with integrity and, above all, are competent.
With lives at stake it really isn’t too much to ask.