Several news stories recently have noted a correlation between the gender of world leaders and the success rate in containing the number of infections and fatalities from Covid-19.

Specifically, several female leaders have been singled out as being especially successful in keeping the numbers low. The names that keep cropping up are Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Sanna Marin, Mette Frederiksen, Erna Solberg and Tsai Ing-wen. And their respective countries are New Zealand, Germany, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan.

Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen. File Photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

Even our own Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has had her name mentioned in the same breath, given Hong Kong’s extraordinarily low infection and death rate.

There is little doubt that when one looks at the numbers, there is an uncanny correlation to be observed. This good news attached to the low numbers stands out because it is almost tautological that country leaders are male. So when a certain phenomenon coincides with female leadership, which tends to be uncommon, it is noticeable.

The news stories mentioned above (and there have been many) have sought to explain this correlation assuming it is causative. One theory espoused is that women are more willing to listen to a variety of opinions from others and follow their advice. Presumably, this especially refers to scientists, who have suggested mass testing and closed borders.

This willingness to consider the voices of others, when contrasted with a certain notable male leader well-known for listening only to those who agree with him, and whose country also leads the fatalities’ toll, appears to have brought about good results.

jacinda ardern prime minister new zealand
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A few others noted traits that the females mentioned above apparently have in abundance when compared to their male counterparts. These are empathy, humility, resilience, compassion, collaborative tendencies and common sense. And it is said that these are the leadership qualities needed now to cope with the pandemic.

It is said that women leaders have been so successful because they have been very decisive, closing their countries down early and keeping them closed – perhaps because they are more sensitive to keeping their citizens alive than their economy chugging along. And this may be revealing their feminine compassion.

Whatever the case, the media has picked up this narrative and it has taken hold. The public seems to have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

On the surface, it provides a compelling story during a time of crisis. But like all neat narratives that link causation to correlation, it is best to dig a bit deeper. Without doing a rigorous statistical analysis of fatality rates in every country vis-a-vis the gender of their leaders, a few conspicuous exceptions to the noted pattern already stand out.

coronavirus covid-19 microscope virus cell
Covid-19 under an electron microscope. File photo: NIAID-RML.

Belgium, which also has a female leader, has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates per capita in the European Union. And across the EU, the median death rate in female versus male-led countries is statistically similar.

Closer to home, South Korea’s male president, Moon Jae-in, has virtually created a formula for preventing and reducing infection and death due to the virus. And even north of the border, mainland China, led by a male leader, has recorded a remarkably low number of infections and fatalities given that the virus originated there and their population is so large.

In fact, although sound leadership is critical for effectively managing the present crisis, the reality is that success or failure is determined by a extremely complex set of criteria.

These include a country’s geography (note that the countries mentioned above, except Germany, are either remote islands or peninsular in nature), their political tendencies (most of the mentioned countries tend towards socialism) and, of course, accessibility to health care.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir prime minister iceland
Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The alternative narrative that pours cold water over the warm and fuzzy one about female leadership during a pandemic, reveals something about human nature. We are all attracted to narratives that spin a good yarn, which in turn lowers our critical filter.

Without a doubt, the female leaders mentioned here have done a stellar job with the virus, but it had little to do with their gender.

paul stapleton

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.