What the pandemic says — and doesn’t say — about gender and power around the world.
Chancellor Angela Merkel began her March 18 speech to the German people by acknowledging their pain.
“The coronavirus is currently dramatically changing our lives,” she said. “Our understanding of normality, of public life, of social togetherness — all this is being tested as never before.”
Then she called on Germans to work together to keep each other safe.
“I firmly believe that we will manage this task if all citizens see it as their task,” Merkel said. “This is serious. Take it seriously.”
Meanwhile, around the same time, President Donald Trump was blaming the media and Democrats for overhyping the “situation,” promising that the problem would “go away,” and trumpeting his own performance in dealing with the crisis while using a racist name for the coronavirus. On March 18, the same day Merkel gave her speech, he boasted, “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning.”
There are, of course, many differences between Merkel and Trump — for example, she is a trained scientist, while he has advocated injecting disinfectants — but one in particular has stood out to many commentators in recent weeks: their gender.
Indeed, female leaders around the world, from Merkel to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand to Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, have won praise for their handling of the crisis. They, along with other women in power around the world, haven’t just communicated effectively with their constituents during an unprecedented public health disaster — they’ve also responded swiftly and decisively, managing to keep case counts and deaths in their countries lower than those of their neighbors. Germany, for example, had about a quarter as many deaths as France as of late April, though both countries were hit hard by the virus.
Women leaders may share some traits that make them particularly well-prepared for this moment, some experts say. For example, they don’t face the same pressure to appear hypermasculine and tough in the face of the pandemic — a pressure that may drive Trump and other male leaders, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, to downplay the seriousness of the threat. “Men definitely are going to take more of a hit if they’re perceived as weak in a time like this,” whereas women may face less judgment if they admit their own and others’ vulnerability to the virus and call on their constituents for help, Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor who studies women leaders, told Vox.
At the same time, experts caution that women leaders, like women voters, aren’t a monolith. Some female heads of state, like Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. And within the US, politicians’ approach to the crisis may be influenced more by their party than their gender, Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, told Vox.
For example, while Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan has imposed tough restrictions to fight the virus in her state (and incurred the wrath of some conservatives for doing so), Republican Govs. Kay Ivey of Alabama and Kristi Noem of South Dakota are “among the governors who did not shut things down,” Dittmar said.
And while the success of female officials in managing the pandemic is worth recognizing in a world where the majority of political leaders have historically been male — and could ultimately bolster a worldwide movement toward putting more women in positions of power — focusing on gender to the exclusion of other factors could also have the effect of holding women to a higher standard than men.
Making the generalization that women are always better at handling crises like the coronavirus runs the risk of essentially setting a trap for female leaders — they’re expected to perform better than men, so when they do well, it’s just business as usual. And when they do run into trouble, whether it’s with the pandemic or some other challenge, “The criticism of them might be greater,” Dittmar said, “because the expectation set is that they’re supposed to be better than the guys.”
Around the world, women have been praised for handling the crisis well
There are few sure success stories amid a pandemic that, the World Health Organization has warned, is far from over. May 20 marks the largest daily rise in global cases since the outbreak began.
But many countries led by women have performed well when it comes to containing the virus and mitigating its most devastating effects. Germany, for example, has had a much lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy, or Spain, as Amanda Taub reported at the New York Times. Part of the reason is a comprehensive testing program that Germany rolled out early, when the US was still lagging far behind on testing its citizens, Vox’s Jen Kirby reported. Merkel also collaborated closely with officials in Germany’s 16 states on lockdown protocols.
The chancellor, a former research scientist, has also been praised for her clear and effective communication with her country — and the world. Her March 18 speech “was direct, honest, and searingly empathic,” Justin Davidson wrote at New York magazine. “She laid bare not just the test we all face but also the solace that leadership can provide.” Davidson’s headline: “The Leader of the Free World Gives a Speech, and She Nails It.”
Meanwhile, New Zealand is currently one of the few countries in the world that has essentially eliminated coronavirus spread, rather than merely controlling it. Ardern, the country’s prime minister, presided over an early and aggressive lockdown when the island nation still had very few cases, and thanks to those efforts, businesses and schools are now reopening without the kinds of terrifying risks and trade-offs seen in the US — at least for now.
Ardern has also spoken directly and intimately to New Zealanders during the crisis. After the country began its lockdown in March, the prime minister “addressed the nation via a casual Facebook Live session she conducted on her phone after putting her toddler to bed,” Taub reported. “Dressed in a cozy-looking sweatshirt, she empathized with citizens’ anxieties and offered apologies to anyone who was startled or alarmed by the emergency alert that announced the lockdown order.”
She has also taken pains to reassure the nation’s children, making an announcement in April that both the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny are essential workers. Trump, by contrast, has been the opposite of reassuring, telling Americans that more illness and death are necessary in order to get the economy booming again.
“Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said at an event in early May. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country opened and we have to get it open soon.”
Taiwan, meanwhile, has been able to contain the virus through aggressive testing, tracing, and isolation without resorting to a full national lockdown, Taub reported. The country acted fast and started testing on December 31, Jason Wang, director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes, and Prevention at Stanford, told Vox in March. And regular government press conferences informing citizens about the virus helped prevent a nationwide panic, Wang said.
Meanwhile, some male leaders have actively spread disinformation and encouraged others to flout public health rules. Brazil’s Bolsonaro, for example, recently posed for photographs with children in violation of social-distancing guidelines. He also falsely claimed in April that the World Health Organization, a key global source of information and guidance about Covid-19, encourages children to masturbate.
Taiwan’s Tsai, who was just inaugurated for her second presidential term, currently enjoys an approval rating of 61 percent, an all-time high and up from 54 percent after her reelection in January, Austin Wang, a political science professor who studies Taiwan politics, told Vox in an email. The rise can be attributed to her handling of the pandemic, he said.
They aren’t alone — other women leaders around the world, like Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, have also been praised for their response to the Covid-19 crisis.
“From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan, women have managed the coronavirus crisis with aplomb,” Jon Henley and Eleanor Ainge Roy wrote at the Guardian in April. “Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.”
Meanwhile, within the United States, women leaders like Whitmer and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have also been hailed for their responses, as well as for their communication with the American people.
Whitmer has been exceptionally emotionally frank in her public statements around the virus, saying “she was gutted to make a certain decision” or “her heart is shattered,” Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist, told Vox in an April interview. “She invokes the emotionality of the work in ways that Trump may not be capable of, which makes it all the more of a contrast to see a governor do that.”
Women may have some advantages during this time, experts say
Many factors go into any country’s experience with the coronavirus, experts warn. Taiwan and New Zealand, for example, are small countries where measures like universal testing and border closures are easier to implement than they would be in larger nations, Jalalzai said.
Still, female leaders may have walked into the current crisis with a few advantages over men. In some cases, male leaders seem to feel the need to appear “super-masculine and super-strong and inflexible” in the face of the pandemic, Jalalzai said. Trump, for example, has repeatedly asserted that he is in control of the Covid-19 crisis, and at times has sought to demonstrate that control in ways that both run counter to public health advice and set a damaging precedent, like when he neglects to wear a mask in public appearances or talks about taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has no proven benefit against Covid-19, to keep from getting infected with the virus.
Women, however, may feel less of a need to live up to expectations of crisis management that are grounded in traditional — even toxic — masculinity. Instead, they may feel more comfortable sending the kinds of messages of empathy and communal support that are necessary to get their citizens to accept difficult and onerous restrictions for the good of all. Women leaders may be more able to say things like, “This is a time that we need to come together, and we need to take care of one another,” Jalalzai said. “Maybe they’re allowed that because it’s more in keeping with those traditional notions of what a female leader would bring to the table.”
Especially in recent years, women in office are “expanding the types of traits and qualifications that are valued in executive leadership,” Dittmar said. As women, “They already disrupt the image” of what a leader looks like. “So as they expand the conceptions of leadership, they might bring in these traits and qualities that unfortunately weren’t valued previously, but might be really helpful in a moment like this,” Dittmar explained.
Women may also bring to the table life experience that can inform their reaction to a crisis like the pandemic, in which women have faced the majority of job losses and make up the majority of essential workers on the front lines. The chief medical executive of Michigan, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, is a black woman who has been vocal about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color in the state, Dittmar noted. “She comes from the perspective that is different from the traditional sort of white guy,” Dittmar said.
And in general, women, and women of color in particular, may be more attuned to the disproportionate impact of the virus on marginalized communities than people who have never had to think about marginalization before. “If you’re not somebody who’s been either a part of that marginalized group or experienced things in a different way, you may be less likely to raise that as a concern,” Dittmar said.
But women aren’t a monolith, and ideology matters too
Despite the advantages that some women leaders may have in this moment, it’s important to note that there is much more at work in a politician’s response to the pandemic than their gender alone.
For example, while Whitmer has acted aggressively to curb the spread of the virus in Michigan, issuing stringent restrictions that have sparked protests, women governors who are Republicans have taken a different approach. Alabama’s Ivey, for example, allowed her state’s stay-at-home order to expire on April 30, with retail stores reopening — cases of coronavirus in the state have climbed since then. South Dakota’s Noem never implemented a stay-at-home order in the first place. And Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa began reopening her state on May 1, even as cases continued to climb.
In addition to whatever influence their gender might have over their governance, these leaders “are also dealing with both their own ideology about government involvement and also pressure, because they have a president and the head of party that’s perpetuating a different view of this moment,” Dittmar said. “Even in this moment of crisis, we have to recognize that elected leaders in particular are elected by partisans and are informed by their partisanship.”
Politics likely influences the coronavirus response of women leaders abroad, too. Hong Kong’s Lam was criticized for being slow to close border crossings as case counts grew, with some saying she was acting out of deference to China, Elaine Yu reported at Vox. She only ordered a quarantine for travelers after medical workers went on strike.
And if we focus too much on gender as a predictor of success in handling the coronavirus, “We risk perpetuating a higher bar or a higher standard to which women are held as leaders,” Dittmar said. When female leaders are seen as more ethical than men, they’re penalized more harshly when they face scandal, she noted.
For Jalalzai, the attention on how women leaders are handling the coronavirus could bring more visibility to the need for more representation. At the most basic level, “People are now more aware of women leaders across the globe than they have been perhaps before.” And overall, she sees more conversation around women in power. “We’re at this point where we question the status quo and we question politics as usual, and we are aware of how gender presents obstacles and are not okay with that anymore,” Jalalzai said.
But it’s also true that female heads of state are still seen as a novelty around the world, Jalalzai added. And they’re still seen as representatives for their gender in ways that men are not. If they stumble, they may be held up as examples of a woman’s inability to govern — something that never happens with men.
Jalalzai gave the example of Brazil: “Bolsonaro is a terrible president, and every decision he seems to be making when it comes to Covid is bad,” she said. “Would that mean down the line Brazilians would be hesitant to vote for a male president?”
For women, “It can be helpful to be a novelty, depending on the circumstances,” Jalalzai said. “But it can be unhelpful to be a novelty if the decisions that you make are not somehow perfect.”
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