Women’s Leadership During the COVID-19 Crisis

Key Takeaways 

  • Women leadership is associated with fewer COVID-19 deaths as opposed to men leaders
  • Women leaders generally express more empathy by relating to followers’ feelings and concerns
  • Women leaders tend to express more confidence in a brighter future

We leveraged the COVID-19 life-and-death pandemic to examine whether women are more effective leaders than men in a crisis. We focused on United States governors because they face extraordinary leadership trials during this crisis.

To preview our conclusion, states with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths compared to states with men governors. In addition, states with women governors who issued an early stay-at-home order had fewer COVID-19 deaths compared to states with men governors who issued the same order.

This suggests that residents might have responded to early orders from women with greater compliance than to orders by men, ultimately saving lives in those states.

Leadership research suggests that women tend to be preferred over men as leaders during uncertain times. This is because, according to studies, women generally have a greater desire to help others, capacity to balance risk and higher resilience to “bounce back” from failure pragmatically compared to men.

Based on this research, we investigated the following question: Do states in the U.S. with women governors have fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with men governors, and why?

First, women tend to be preferred as leaders in situations that require creativity, improvisation and intuition, such as those characterized by high levels of uncertainty. This is because women tend to exhibit more of these qualities than men.

Second, leaders face unfamiliar dilemmas in a crisis. This makes a leader’s ability to foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing important for success. Research has shown that women tend to have a democratic leadership style, making them more likely to encourage information-sharing and brainstorming, increasing the probability of consensus building. These qualities can improve the quality of the leaders’ decision making in a crisis.

Third, successful leaders show awareness of their followers’ feelings and acknowledge the emotional challenges they face. Doing this effectively requires empathy. Showing empathy involves imagining how others are affected by the situation at hand. Research on gender and empathy has shown that women tend to be more empathetic toward others than men.

Finally, mistakes are likely to happen in a crisis. Leaders need confidence to make course corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the operations with doubt. Studies reveal that women are less likely than men to take mistakes and failure personally, increasing their ability to maintain confidence amid adversity.

To test our research question, we used publicly available data on COVID-19 deaths by state. We also included variables to account for state population, governors’ gender and other sociodemographic variables, along with important COVID-19-related actions, such as state issuance of stay-at-home orders, face mask mandates, bans on travel and ventilator sharing.

By including these, we were able to determine if a governor’s gender was a predictor for any unique difference in COVID-19 deaths above and beyond other related variables.                               

To investigate why this might be, we next analyzed more than 250 of the governors’ COVID-19-related briefings (about 1.2 million words). Compared to men governors, we found that women governors displayed more empathy by relating to their followers’ feelings and concerns, and they expressed greater confidence that a brighter future is ahead.

What does this mean for effective management and leadership in times of crisis?

First, these findings underscore the need to value different leadership voices and build a culture of inclusion in which varied voices are heard and valued.

In the absence of women governors or women organizational leaders during a crisis, effort can be put forth to diversify leadership teams with individuals who show empathy and confidence.

Empathy can be expressed with tactful and gentle communication that focuses on showing one’s understanding for the feelings of others and relating to their personal concerns. Confidence, like empathy, can translate to differences in communication.

For example, instead of trying to convey confidence by commanding attention and trying to win arguments to gain power, leaders can communicate confidence with sensitivity, focusing on the future that lies ahead after the crisis.

In organizations, these attributes could be enhanced with training. For example, men can also exhibit traditionally feminine qualities because gender roles develop from an individual’s activities throughout their life. Therefore, although we found empathy and confidence to be associated more strongly with women’s leadership, not all men have different leadership styles than women.

Unobtrusively changing gendered stereotypes at a societal level is easier said than done. Constructive conversations are needed to sift through ways in which pre-conceived views about gender and leadership stereotypes can be updated.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.