Do countries with female leaders truly fare better with Covid-19?

Women keeping Covid deaths at bay.
Women keeping Covid deaths at bay.
Image: Alicia Tatone/Getty Images
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“What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Women leaders” Forbes heralded on April 13, about a month after the first lockdown orders hit the US. “Countries led by women have fared better against coronavirus. Why?” The Hill puzzled just five days later.

The idea that female world leaders were outperforming male ones was based on several high-profile anecdotes. By early June, New Zealand, led by 39-year-old prime minister Jacinda Ardern, seemed to have rid its shores of the virus. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has been praised by others around the world for her strong response to the crisis, and for the low infection rate in her country. And in Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Covid-19 response has won her high approval ratings.

But most of these reports don’t reference any data to support their narrative. A recently released study (pdf) finally tests the idea that women heads of state have excelled at handling the crisis. The research, conducted by two economists at UK universities, suggests this phenomenon is more than just anecdote.

The analysis, which is now out as a working paper and has been submitted for consideration to a journal, found that the infection rate and death rate of Covid-19 were both lower in countries run by women compared to those in male-led countries. In an effort to isolate the specific effect of having a female leader, they compared female-led countries to male-led countries that are similar in population, geography, gender equality, health expenditures, and number of tourists. No matter how they sliced the data, female-led countries fared better.

Though the paper is compelling, it doesn’t offer incontrovertible proof. Part of the reason it’s so hard to say for sure that women leaders are better rising to the Covid-19 challenge is that there are just so few of them. Of 194 countries included in the researchers’ analysis, just 19 of them (about 10%) are run by women. What’s more, experts think that many countries are miscounting or misrepresenting the number of people within their borders affected by the virus.

“We are concerned about the quality of the data,” the study authors told Quartz via email. “As we mention in the paper, most countries were not testing comprehensively, so the numbers of cases are not entirely reliable and the numbers of deaths are not recorded in exactly the same way across countries. Once we are confident about this, it would make more analysis possible about the decisions made by leaders.” Though the pandemic has been going on for months, the world likely won’t know the true extent of the virus’ early damage until much later.

In an effort to understand why female leaders may be well-positioned to combat the pandemic, the researchers dug into the qualities that female leaders share. They found that female leaders locked down their countries after fewer deaths than did their male counterparts. They attribute this to the fact that women are more risk-averse, an idea corroborated by previous studies (pdf). They also cite the possibility that women feel more empathy—an idea echoed by Hillary Clinton who, on a June panel, said on the subject: “Women have been demonstrating the kind of inclusive, empathetic, science-based leadership that we should be trying to promote across the world.”

Though much ink has been spilled on the topic of female leaders’ response to Covid-19 in the past few months, most journalists and political and medical experts relied on assumptions or anecdotes about female leadership to support their claim. They claim that female leaders are humble, that they welcome diverse viewpoints, that they’re less constrained by traditional trappings of leadership, that they are more accepting of science, and more hands-on. It’s hard to know for sure whether these or any other qualities helped female leaders excel, or if such generalizations apply to the most successful among them.

This analysis, the study authors note, can’t tell us much beyond the immediate response to the pandemic. Infection and death rates keep changing—and so too may the takeaways based on their analyses by the time Covid-19 has receded. “As we begin to know more about the way Covid spreads, there will be other variables that become more relevant,” the study authors said. “To be really confident that this is causation, there needs to be an effort to analyze all the communications of each leader, the level of trust they engendered etc. This is more about careful qualitative analysis of each country’s experience to see what worked and what did not.”