A woman leader holds up a COVID-19 chart card.

It's official: Women are better leaders in a pandemic

A new analysis of 194 countries found that women-led nations have a better handle on the coronavirus pandemic. Not only were infection rates generally lower; fatality rates were also noticeably lower, too.

The World

What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Women in charge.

Well, that was at least implied when a meme with that question featuring seven women leaders circulated on social media earlier this year. 

And few could argue with the fact that New Zealand led by Jacinda Ardern, and Germany with Angela Merkel, have seen a markedly low fatality rate from the virus. Taiwan, under the presidency of Tsai Ing-Wen, performed well, too. 

Related: In Turkey, doctors fear coronavirus numbers are higher than official reports 

But could it be coincidental? Uma Kambhampati, professor of economics at Reading University in the UK, decided to investigate. She and Supriya Garikipati, an economics professor at the University of Liverpool, compared data across 194 countries. 

Given that just 10% of those countries are female-led, the research team matched them against similar male-led nations. To do this, they took into account factors such as population size, gross domestic product, health expenditure, gender equality and the number of older people residing there. 

Kambhampati was taken aback by the findings. Not only were infection rates generally lower in the female-led nations; fatality rates from the virus were also noticeably lower, too.

“The infection rates in female-led countries were lower. But the significance of that difference was smaller than in the case of deaths. In the case of deaths, the significance was much more obvious."

Uma Kambhampati, economics professor, Reading University

“There were differences in the infection rates. The infection rates in female-led countries were lower. But the significance of that difference was smaller than in the case of deaths. In the case of deaths, the significance was much more obvious,” Kambhampati told The World. 

So why is the death rate on average so much lower in countries led by women? 

Related: New Zealand delays election over coronavirus

The study didn’t examine the reasons for this, but Kambhampati says one finding might pinpoint why. Countries led by women went into lockdown earlier than most of those led by their male counterparts. And when Kambhampati says earlier, she doesn’t mean in terms of weeks or months; she means in terms of deaths. 

“We found that female-led countries locked down approximately 25 deaths earlier than male-led countries."

Uma Kambhampati, economics professor, Reading University

“We found that female-led countries locked down approximately 25 deaths earlier than male-led countries,” she said. 

That decision led to a lot of lives saved, Kambhampati says. 

There’s lots of conflicting research about male and female leadership skills. Economics literature regularly perceives women as being risk-averse, Kambhampati says. But her findings show female leaders to be anything but. By locking down early, women took greater risks with their economies than their male equivalents, the study finds. 

The mantra that New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern repeated almost daily during those first three months of the pandemic was “go hard and go early.” One might think sending a country into a strict lockdown for weeks on end would be an unpopular choice, but Ardern’s ratings have remained high.

Now, however, many countries are experiencing a second wave of the virus. And protest movements against government restrictions are growing. 

In Berlin, 38,000 people took to the streets last weekend marching in opposition to chancellor Angela Merkel’s COVID-19 strategy. Right-wing journalist Roland Tichy, a critic of Merkel, believes the government was too slow to announce a lockdown, and when it did, the measures were unnecessarily harsh.

“The lockdown just ruined the economy, but didn't really help to fight the virus."

Roland Tichy, journalist and critic of Angela Merkel

“The lockdown just ruined the economy, but didn't really help to fight the virus,” says Tichy, who thinks it will be much harder to persuade the public to endure another lockdown.

“She would run into difficulties with the public because many people just need their money and need their income,” he says. Tichy wears a mask and believes social distancing is important but also sees the German lockdown as an infringement on personal freedom. 

But Merkel’s ratings — like Ardern’s — remain solidly high.

Related: 5 years after migrant crisis, integration in Germany is succeeding, policy analyst says

The city of Auckland in New Zealand went back under lockdown after a handful of new cases were identified there in mid-August. People are starting to vent frustration at the measures. Radio talk show host with New Zealand ZB Helen Du Plessis-Allan says she no longer believes Ardern can crush the virus.

“It doesn't really matter what she announces to try and fix this one, I actually don't believe a word of what she and her government say about how they are going to do their COVID[-19] response. I now do not trust them to keep COVID[-19] out of this country.”

Bar and restaurant owners, too, are openly questioning whether Ardern has taken things too far this time. Julie White, who heads Hospitality New Zealand, a trade organization, says many venues may not survive another lockdown unless financial help is provided by the government.  

Kambhampati says she can’t predict what the results would be if the same study was carried out six months from now. Her research focused on the first three months of the pandemic.

But one finding from the study may serve as food for thought. Women leaders appeared to approach the crisis with a singular vision: to save lives.

Male leaders, according to Kambhampati, set the fatality rate and the state of the economy as their key priorities. The impact left them in a bind trying to balance the nation’s health against the state of the economy, she says. Kambhampati believes that juggling both costs time — and lives.

“They were in a bit of a quandary when it came to making that decision. And that meant that they lost time. And in the context of the early stages of this pandemic, you know, a few days was a lot of deaths,” she says. 

With many countries now experiencing new waves of virus infections, leaders are dealing not only with rising death rates but struggling economies, too. Having a singular vision to tackle the pandemic might be a risky tactic second time around.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 314 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.