Women leaders and Coronavirus: It’s not about winning. It’s about leading.
If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s that leadership matters. In recent weeks, we witnessed a staggering spread of the virus in the U.S., Italy, Spain, and dozens of nations. Yet, others are managing to flatten the curve significantly. Although many factors are at play, it is becoming apparent that women in leadership positions are changing the course of their country’s COVID-19 trajectory.
As the coronavirus started making international headlines, I was wrapping up the final interview for my book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World with the Washington, D.C. based Ambassador from St. Kitts and Nives, Dr. Thelma Phillip-Browne. She shared, “Sometimes things like the viruses come to remind us that it doesn’t matter where we are born, what color we are, or the religious beliefs we have. It’s an equalizer. We need to pull together the same kind of energy for saving or sustaining our common humanity.”
This virus has definitely been an equalizer. From Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to my friend’s grandmother. While the virus doesn’t care who you are, leadership matters on how we combat it.
Take New Zealand. Its death rate is far lower than America’s. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s management of the crisis is planful, compassionate, and collaborative. These characteristics of women in leadership are no surprise to me.
Ardern implemented a pragmatic, step-by-step plan towards a nation-wide lockdown, modeled social distancing by speaking to citizens directly from her home on Facebook, and used the language of “we” and “us” to denote that the efforts of the country are collective.
Other nations led by women — Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Taiwan — also displayed these crisis management attributes and are in a better position to reopen sooner, smarter, and in a safer manner.
Through interviewing more than thirty women ambassadors, foreign ministers, and government officials from around the world, I found that striving for gender parity at all levels of decision-making makes a real difference.
Women are natural coalition and consensus builders. When I spoke with Hungary’s first woman Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Réka Szemerkényi, she said, “Women have a more natural talent for approaching conflict compared to men, but a combination of men and women is hugely important.”
Many of the women I interviewed shared intimate stories of how they build consensus, leading to beneficial results for international challenges — from peace treaties to security. Now, a pandemic falls under the results category too.
For example, retired U.S. Army Major General Linda Singh is no stranger to a crisis. She held the role of Commander of the Maryland National Guard and senior advisor to the Governor of Maryland during the 2015 Baltimore protests and civil disturbances. She told me, “Just having my voice in the room with some of the males around me allowed me to bring a very different perspective.”
In the book, I share the moment she asked the decision-making group, “How do we deescalate things in a way that still moves towards a solution, that makes sense for the overall team?” When she used the idea of “the team,” she included citizens as part of the solution.
Ardern and New Zealand’s government are using a similar approach by giving citizens a unified purpose of joining together to combat COVID-19. We see elements of this approach here in the U.S. with Vice President Pence’s “All of America” campaign, but the impact is dampened by the language of “I” and “me” coming from the top. The leadership trait of a team-oriented approach, galvanizing society into a collective mindset, is especially helpful right now as the majority of us are isolated at home.
Women leaders are bringing different mindsets to combat this current situation, and the results are proven through lower cases and death rates. When the history of the crisis is written, we will most likely learn that nations with higher levels of gender parity fare better.
Only women and men working together to make effective and humane decisions can carry us through this and future crises. We are seeing in real-time why leadership matters and why more women are needed at the highest levels. It’s not about winning. It’s about leading.
Over the next weeks, I’ll share excerpts and stories from my book, A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World in this article series. A Seat at the Table is available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Kobo! If you want to connect, follow me on Twitter @realSusanSloan and reach me on my website susansloan.com.