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Ayee on Women’s Political Leadership in the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Gloria Y.A. Ayee co-editor of Perspectives on Women’s Leadership and Gender In(Equality)

Historically, women have been significantly underrepresented in political leadership positions globally, and gender discrimination and inequality in the political sphere remains a key issue that many nations contend with. In recent months, the different approaches to crisis management and responses to public health concerns taken by men and women in positions of political power has come under scrutiny, igniting the debate about the role of women in politics and raising questions about whether women are generally better at managing crises. Women are often encouraged to emulate men’s leadership styles; however, during a crisis like the current pandemic, women in positions of political leadership tend to be more successful because they generally embody traits like empathy and humility, in addition to qualities like assertiveness and confidence, that they can leverage in their favor.

As I have followed the political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in different regions of the world, it is apparent that a multifaceted approach — based on proactive, informed, and compassionate leadership strategies — is essential for combatting this global health crisis. It is also obvious that the countries that have been most effective in tackling the pandemic and containing the spread of the coronavirus are those that are led by women. 

A study published in June 2020 by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, suggests that the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in countries led by women is significantly lower than in countries led by men1. According to the authors of the study, which includes analysis of 194 countries during the first quarter of 2020, the systematic differences in COVID-19 outcomes can be explained by the specific policy approaches that female heads of state adopted to fight the pandemic. In countries like Bangladesh, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Sint Maarten, and Taiwan, women leaders implemented more “coordinated and proactive” strategies to address the health crises in their respective countries.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has posed serious challenges for countries across the globe and underscored the need for strong, informed leadership during times of crisis. While some political leaders have been able to communicate fact-based information about the international health emergency with transparency and honesty, acting decisively, and taking a science-based approach to contain the pandemic, other heads of state continue to grapple with the spread of the disease and the associated social and economic challenges from one of the worst public health crises since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be an ultimate test in contagion management and highlighted the importance of political leadership that is grounded in empathy, resolve, courage, honesty, and respecting expert opinion.

Women heads of state have distinguished themselves as outstanding and competent leaders during the pandemic. Among other pandemic management efforts, these women leaders adopted early travel restrictions, implemented strict health screenings, and encouraged the production and widespread use of face masks by the general public. Obviously, while every woman leader will not be an effective manager during a period of crisis, and every male leader will not be a poor one, the current pandemic has taught us many lessons about the gendered dynamics of leadership during times of significant economic and public health challenges. 

The actions taken by several women leaders have been truly exemplary. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration was able to guide the country in successfully containing the transmission of the novel coronavirus. In fact, Taiwan — which is not even a member of the World Health Organization — was the first country to notify the WHO about human to human transmission of COVID-19. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, unequivocally stated that the global health situation was serious, and entreated people to take the dangers of virus transmission seriously. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, acted with clarity and decisiveness very early on, and was honest with the public about the steps her government was taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Notably, she implemented policy measures that focused not on merely containing the virus but on eliminating it. Her government’s approach included applying travel restrictions when there were only a handful of recorded COVID-19 cases in the country and encouraging the public to maintain strict social distancing guidelines to manage the crisis and reduce the transmission rate. These are only a few examples of successful policy measures that were adopted by women political leaders. These heads of state should be recognized and lauded for their efforts. In employing policies that focused on clear and consistent communication and supporting nationwide mandates based on well-founded public health interventions, these political leaders were undoubtedly able to save countless lives and prevent economic collapse during one of the deadliest pandemics in recent history.

Gloria Y.A. Ayee, Ph.D. is a Lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University, and a faculty associate at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her scholarship focuses on transitional justice, human rights, and the work of truth and reconciliation commissions. Ayee is the co-editor (along with Elena V. Shabliy and Dmitry Kurochkin) of Perspectives on Women’s Leadership and Gender In(Equality), a collection of essays that takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring issues connected to women’s leadership and women’s rights advancement around the world.


Garikipati, Supriya, and Uma Kambhampati. 2020. “Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?