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Three lessons we can learn from the success of women’s leadership during COVID-19

28 May 2020

Image: KK Shailaja, The Guardian.

COVID-19 has rapidly exposed fatal shortcomings in political leadership in many countries. But, it has also highlighted the strengths of political authorities, particularly those led by women. At a national level, Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-Wen and Angela Merkel have been heralded as responsible and astute leaders, deploying clear policies to curb the virus since the start of the outbreak. Success stories of women leaders at regional and community levels are continually emerging, take KK Shailaja, the Health Minister for the state of Kerala – AKA the Coronavirus Slayer (pictured above). Shailaja’s oversight of the pandemic response in a population of 35 million has resulted in only a handful of deaths. Not to mention the millions of female health professionals who make up the majority of nurses and carers across the world – many of who simultaneously manage their own childcare and households.

With women leaders in the spotlight during a global pandemic, are there any lessons we can learn about effective crisis leadership?

Based on DLP research, we have identified three takeaways for women leaders and those seeking to support them in a (post-) COVID-19 world:

  1. What has worked for women leaders to influence during this crisis may provide a blueprint for their successors in the future.
  2. The power of gender-balanced and diverse coalitions, at community and intergovernmental levels, for policymaking. This is not only possible in democratic societies.
  3. The potential for a backlash against women leaders in a post-COVID-19 world, especially in cultural contexts with entrenched patriarchal traditions.

‘Rules of thumb’ for women leaders

With the world’s attention turning to its own mortality, women leaders are increasingly being judged by their life-saving policies and not by their personalities (or the colour of their shoes). The public emphasis on the effectiveness of multiple women leaders during this time reflects a fundamental approach to our research – which is to identify positive outliers for developmental leadership. This is a process of identifying ‘what works’ in successful routes to leadership, instead of focusing on, for example, the hurdles and barriers women face in navigating male-dominated politics.

A significant piece of DLP research on women’s leadership, ‘Being the First’, uncovered how three senior politicians in the Pacific, Hilda Heine, Fiame Mata’afa, and Dame Carol Kidu, all harnessed different forms of social and cultural capital (for example, educational achievements and family connections) to gain political advantage and reach positions of power. Being the First identifies seven ‘rules of thumb’ that were critical to the leaders’ success; for example, ‘know how and when to take a stand’ and ‘develop strategies for working in a male-dominated environment’. While societies continue to tackle overwhelming structural inequalities, through studying approaches that work, it is also possible to find blueprints for leaders to enact change.

Identifying tools to lead successfully during a crisis has never been more crucial both for women leaders and governments as a whole to continue combating COVID-19. At the individual level, it has been found that transformational leadership – a collaborative leadership style that maps out the need for change, builds a vision and then carries out steps to reach the agreed goal collectively – lends itself better to crises, due to its focus on remaining positive and communicating ideals and achievements. It also just so happens that transformational leadership is more likely to be enacted by women leaders.

Strategic use of communication during the coronavirus crisis has been particularly recognised by leaders when unprecedented levels of action and compliance were required quickly. Adi Vasiti Radinivuna Soko (Director of Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office) emphasised that communication became an ‘asset’ in dealing with colleagues outside of the lockdown zone in Suva to deliver a plan they had not been witness to.

Coalitions and policymaking – what we know

However, as the global pandemic response continues to play out, the power of the collective is trumping the power of individuals. For example, states with authoritarian leaders and practices such as Brazil, Russia, and India are still seeing a rise in daily fatalities. In the context of women’s leadership, debates are fast-diverting from individual feminine leadership traits that are well suited to dealing with a crisis to the power of inclusive, democratic political systems in upholding robust debate and decision-making. Champoux-Paillé and Croteau identify a correlation between effective pandemic response and countries that score highly on the Global Gender Gap Report 2020.

In DLP’s decade-long work on leadership in development, the process of diverse groups of individuals coming together to form coalitions is found to be one of (if not the most) critical components in effective policymaking. And this is a process that can happen in both autocratic and democratic states. Take Vietnam, a country that has been able to keep COVID-19 at bay from the vast majority of the population through transparent and two-way conversations with its citizens, provincial authorities and the private sector.

What challenges lie ahead for women’s leadership?

Finally, an unexpected result of this pandemic has been to revive a focus on women’s leadership, providing role models and possible opportunities for participation. Still, this crisis has a long road ahead. A forthcoming DLP study finds that women leaders in Indonesia face a ‘backlash’ effect for being in positions of power – especially in contexts that abide by traditional gender norms. Is it possible that women leaders and their respective governments who are being celebrated for suppressing a deadly virus may face more criticism in an equally and if not more challenging post-COVID-19 world?

From what this pandemic, and history, has taught us so far it will become even more vital to ensure women leaders, from community to ministerial levels, are given the opportunity to influence responses to existential economic and climate emergencies. We should be prepared for risks (in terms of backlash in some communities) and trade-offs along the way – between adhering to (and as a result upholding) the rules of male-dominated politics and taking part in genuinely gender-balanced systems and reforms. But now we must learn from and continue to build on the positives, to ensure women’s leadership is protected and promoted beyond COVID-19.

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