Much has been made in the press about the role of women’s leadership in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. The media has hailed the success of leading figures such as Jacinda Arden, Tsai-Ing Wen, and Sanna Marin in managing to keep case numbers low during the last year. This has been mirrored in academic research, with studies demonstrating women leaders may be more inclined to acknowledge the human cost of the pandemic and engage with more gender-sensitive messaging. Yet, aggregate data analysis has highlighted selection bias in some such analyses, that there are in fact some women leaders doing a good job in combatting the crisis, and some performing less well.
Though women’s executive leadership deserves to be celebrated, providing important role models and necessary alternatives to the rise in hyper-masculinised “strongman” politics, focusing on individual women’s success can paint a false picture of the state of gender equality. By exalting women’s executive leadership as the signpost for equality, we inculcate the idea that individual women can independently overcome patriarchal structures (i.e. “if they only try hard enough”) and obscure the plight of millions of women who do not benefit from such a position.
Discussions on gender (in)equality during crises requires more than just equality for individual heads of state and should include a holistic approach to improving policies which affect the lives of women and other marginalised communities. Women leaders are a symptom of a society that has prioritised the health and wellbeing of their citizens, and this should be celebrated – but not to the exclusion of meaningful gender transformative policy.
Wenham C and Herten-Crabb A (2021) It’s a distraction to focus on the success of individual women leaders during COVID, Essays on equality – Covid-19: the road to a gender-equal recovery, The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Kings College London