Yesterday I read an article in Forbes magazine concerning the countries which have mounted the most effective responses to the coronavirus pandemic. All of them have female leaders. According to the latest WHO figures, only 4,404 Germans have died from the illness as opposed to 20,453 Spaniards and 23,660 Italians. This despite the fact that Germany has 36 million more people than Spain and 23 million more than Italy. The likely cause of this enormous discrepancy is that Angela Merkel responded promptly to the first sign that the virus was in Europe, immediately ordering an enforced lockdown, social distancing and widespread testing. She simply skipped past the denial and hesitancy exhibited by most of her male counterparts whose inability to lead decisively has come at a terrible cost to their citizens.
Tsai Ing-wen acted so quickly and effectively that her country of Taiwan never needed to lock down and has only experienced six reported Covid-19 deaths to date despite being one of the first countries infected after China. New Zealand and Iceland, (two other countries with female Prime Ministers) have thus far also only experienced single digit verified fatalities due to the virus.
This situation raises the question, “Why are the outcomes in female-led societies so vastly different than those where men are in charge?” My experience of female leaders is that they tend to be less concerned with pride and appearances than their male counterparts and are generally more focused on the greater good. What is best for one’s constituents is vastly more important than that which enriches one’s own reputation. I’ve also noticed that male leaders frequently appear more interested in the acquisition of power for its own sake than in pursuing the greater good, whereas women in command often seem to view authority as simply a necessary part of effective leadership.
I have maintained for years that the world would almost certainly be a better place if more women were allowed into positions of power in all arenas. A common rejoinder to this claim is that women could hold more leadership roles if only they would act more like men, to which I respond, “How would that help?” The many dire global problems which exist today were created, and are allowed to continue, by male leaders in all spheres of society. There is no logical way to deny this fact given that men have been almost exclusively in charge for all of recorded human history. Women acting like men would only perpetuate this dismal record.
I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women”. Like me, the author of this article questions the validity of suggesting that women wishing to advance in any given profession should follow the example of men, many of whom ultimately prove incompetent or ineffectual. The article sites numerous examples from the business world where companies with female leadership have experienced higher productivity and happier workers. The clear indication of these findings is that leadership would generally be more effective with an improved balance between the two genders. That sadly seems unlikely for the foreseeable future, but clearly a gradual incorporation of female values into male dominated hierarchies would almost certainly improve outcomes.
The article went on to enumerate examples of stereotypically feminine traits which have repeatedly proven to be advantageous in the business world compared to the more masculine traits which currently prevail. Women tend to be harder on themselves than men, probably because society tends to judge them more harshly and frequently than their male counterparts. They generally display an ability to take criticism less personally and are often more willing to take advice from experts, making it easier for them to put their egos aside and collaborate with others when faced with difficult choices. This almost certainly ensures that better decisions are made in the end.
Female leaders often lead more through example than through fear. They tend to bring people in line by highlighting similarities and common goals rather than by using a carrot and stick or – as is the case with many male leaders – a stick alone. People tend to be happier and more concerned with the greater good when leaders appeal to their sensibilities and values rather than attempting to coerce blind adherence to arbitrary rules or expectations. Men tend to be more narcissistic and personally motivated when pursuing and performing leadership duties than women with commensurate levels of responsibility and authority. Leaders who put the welfare of their subordinates ahead of their own are generally more effective, and their selflessness tends to ripple out through the population in positive ways.
Male leaders have historically ascended and maintained their grip on power through dominance and fear, whereas the few women who have managed to reach the same heights have by and large embodied an ethos based on empathy and altruism. Studies have proven people are more compliant and willing to follow those who show a genuine interest in their welfare. Men have proven likely to exhibit reticence in acknowledging excellence in their subordinates as they view it as a threat to their station. They similarly have a hard time publicly owning up to mistakes. Women leaders are often able to buck this trend, and there is empirical evidence that businesses are more effective when employees feel appreciated by their bosses, and that productivity and morale improve in companies where leaders humanize themselves by acknowledging their own shortcomings.
It seems to me that the difference between the way men and women wield power comes from their motivation to acquire it in the first place. In most cultures boys receive praise more frequently than girls and are also conditioned to view the world as a zero sum contest where aggression and dominance are paramount. This encourages them to believe they have earned every benefit they reap and that they are intrinsically qualified and entitled to lead. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to serve others and have to prove excellent at anything they attempt in order to receive any positive feedback. Women therefore tend to view leadership not as their right but rather as a way to take care of people, and largely don’t expect or need to be lauded for their efforts. They never have been before.
The Harvard Business Review is right to suggest that things would almost certainly get better if men adopted a more feminine approach to being in command. That not withstanding, I would argue that the traits which make so many men bad leaders – pride, narcissism and the desire to amass power for its own sake – are the very ones which preclude them from even considering the viability of making changes to the way they view and carry out their duties. Humanity will not reap the benefits of female leadership (eg. the astonishingly low Covid-19 fatalities noted in the opening of this essay) until the demographics of leadership more accurately reflect those of society.