A recent study from Liverpool University study shows that countries led by women were locked down earlier, “followed the science” more rigorously, and as a result have so far seen half as many COVID deaths.

The results clearly indicate that women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities. In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances which has certainly helped these countries to save lives

The study combed data for 194 countries up to May 19, with 19 of them led by women. The study excluded Taiwan and Hong Kong – both led by women – because the World Bank (the study’s main source of consistently comparable macro data) covers neither. Had they been included – given that Hong Kong and Taiwan have been among the world’s most successful on containing the virus the study would have reached even stronger conclusions about the superior performance of women leaders during Covid-19.

The Liverpool University study confirmed the findings of studies from teams at Trinity College Dublin, and from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy at King’s College London, both undertaken in May. The Trinity College study of 35 countries found that women-led economies suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths, with more rapid “flattening of the curve” and caseload peaks six times lower than those in male-led countries.

It drew particular attention to Scandinavia, where female-led Denmark, Norway and Finland moved so much more effectively than male-led Sweden. Most women-led governments have also placed a stronger emphasis on social and environmental well-being, investing more in public health and reducing air pollution.

The Liverpool team confirmed this conclusion: “Nearest neighbour analysis clearly confirms that when women-led countries are compared to countries similar to them along a range of characteristics, they have performed better, experiencing fewer cases as well as fewer deaths”

From Montreal, a study using data from an annual World Economic Forum gender parity survey, credited the superior performance of women during the pandemic on common features: resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility. Gender-balanced environments produced more robust decisions.

The Liverpool study challenged a widespread conventional wisdom that women leaders are more risk averse. Women leaders were risk averse with regard to lives and they were prepared to take significant risks with their economies by locking down early. Risk aversion may manifest differently in different domains, with women leaders being significantly more risk averse in the domain of human life, but more risk taking in the domain of the economy.

These studies seem to agree that male leaders have in general served their countries less well during the pandemic. With examples such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, the view seems hard to challenge. In contrast, the steadiest and most trustworthy leaders in recent months have clearly been Angela Merkel of Germany and  Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand – and their steadiness has been rewarded with thousands of saved lives.

The authors are nevertheless anxious to emphasise that this is still an early stage in the development of the global pandemic and that their study was based on immediate reactions to the first wave. The study needs to be repeated when the final toll of the pandemic is measured – both in terms of lives and economic cost – perhaps more than a year from now.

Even at this early stage, certain conclusions seem clear: there are systemic and statistically measurable differences in the efficacy of policymaking when countries are led by women, that “gender-balanced” policymaking produces more robust decisions.  Qualities normally viewed as “female” – such as empathy, compassion, listening and collaboration – are hugely valuable not just in a pandemic or other health crises, but also on issues that demand close international cooperation, such as the climate crisis, environmental pollution, resource use, ageing, and skills shortages.

Differences in approaches to risk also seem important. The study noted that while both men and women are often overconfident, men are more overconfident of success in uncertain situations. Perhaps even more important when faced with negative experiences or setbacks men tend to react with anger, while women react with caution.

With women leading just 19 of the 194 countries studied, it will clearly be some time before there are enough women leaders – and women in positions of power in more general terms – to build an exact science around the difference that female leadership makes.

(Source: SCMP – David Dodwell, Executive Director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Study Group)