Women’s Leadership in the COVID-19 Crisis
The contagious, unpredictable, and deadly nature of the COVID-19 virus created one of the largest “natural experiments” in history, affording researchers in social psychology and personality an opportunity to study psychological processes during a life-and-death crisis.
Rapid escalation of COVID-19 created unprecedented levels of uncertainty. As the crisis unfolded, governors across the United States were forced to make drastic decisions that carried rare personal costs to their residents. This included social distancing measures, mandated use of face masks, business shutdowns, and school closures. In research conducted between April and May 2020, we found that the gender of governors in the United States was associated with the most important consequence of COVID-19—death rates: States with female governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with male governors.
Research on gender and leadership has revealed that women tend to be preferred over men as leaders during uncertain times. There are several reasons that female leaders thrive in a crisis.
First, during a crisis, leader must exercise creative thinking. In general, women tend to rely more than men on creativity, improvisation, and intuition to inform their decisions. Leadership in a crisis relies less on direct experience and, instead, calls for cognitive flexibility and a willingness to consider input and advice from many different people.
Research on leadership styles has long shown that, on average, women have a more democratic leadership style and men a more autocratic style. As a result, women tend to be better leaders in a crisis because they focus more on collaboration and knowledge sharing. They listen to multiple voices. For example, consider the remarks of Rhode Island Governor, Gina Raimondo, in her April 13, 2020 briefing, “I am confident that by working together and sharing our best ideas, we will be more likely to get it right.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had disorienting effects on millions of Americans, prompting tremendous levels of stress, fear, and frustration. Thus, it is especially important for leaders to show empathy by speaking to their followers’ feelings and acknowledging the emotional challenges the public faces. Women tend to have a greater capacity for understanding other people’s feelings than men, so they tend to connect more easily with followers on an emotional level. Consider, for instance, South Dakota Governor, Krisi Noem’s, remarks on April 23, 2020, “You do not have to go through this alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me personally, to reach out to my family because they are in the same boat many times and feel the same feelings that you all do.”
Finally, mistakes are unavoidable in a crisis like COVID-19. Leaders need confidence to make course corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the operations with doubt. Research has shown that women generally attribute failure more to external causes, whereas men take failure more personally, which inhibits their ability to bounce back. For this reason, women are more likely than men to exude confidence in a crisis. Consider the remarks of Washington D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser, on April 3, 2020, “…we will get through this and we will get on the other side of this and we will get back to life …”
In our analysis of governors, we included variables that allowed us to isolate the unique effect of gender by controlling for variables such as state population, stay at home orders, domestic travel bans, face mask mandates, and statewide curfews. Including these variables in our analysis increased our confidence that governor’s gender—and not some other factor that might influence COVID death rates—was responsible for our results.
We found that states with female governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths. To provide insight into why, we analyzed more than 250 of the COVID-19 related briefings that governors held between April 1 and May 5, 2020, which included more than 1.2 million words. On average, women governors showed more empathy than men by connecting more with their followers’ feelings. Likewise, female governors showed empathy by relating more to their followers’ personal concerns than did male governors. Female governors also expressed more confidence that we will get through the crisis compared with male governors.
These findings highlight the need to value different leadership styles and to build a culture of inclusion and empathy. We hope it is obvious that, despite average gender differences, female leaders do not have a monopoly on leaderships traits such as inclusiveness and empathy. So, both male and female leaders can make efforts to be more inclusive and empathic. Empathic leaders convey a tone of communication that is tactful and gentle. Similarly, confidence can impact the way leaders communicate. Whereas men often communicate confidence in a way that increases their power—by commanding attention and winning arguments—women tend to be more sensitive in exuding confidence by focusing on immediately relevant issues rather than power.
Are there any stereotypically male leadership traits that will come in handy as America continues to cope with COVID-19? We suspect so. Decades of research on leadership and work behavior show that a balance of task orientation (getting the job done) and interpersonal sensitivity (connectedness) is ideal in most leadership situations. So, for both male and female leaders—whether parents, teachers, presidents, or technocrats—focusing on getting the job done while also being empathic and open to the feelings and ideas of others is probably an ideal combination.
Of course, changing gendered stereotypes and norms about leadership at a societal level is easier said than done. Nonetheless, we believe that constructive conversations about specific leadership skills can change stereotypes and habits about effective leadership—to move forward in this time of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
For Further Reading
Sergent, K., & Stajkovic, A. D. (2020). Women’s leadership is associated with fewer deaths during the COVID-19 crisis: Quantitative and qualitative analyses of United States governors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(8), 771–783. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000577
Kayla Sergent is an Assistant Professor of Management at Edgewood College.
Alex Stajkovic is the M. Keith Weikel Distinguished Chair in Leadership at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.