Countries with female leaders have suffered one-sixth as many Covid-19 deaths as those led by men and will recover sooner from recession.
The Covid-19 crisis seems to confirm what we have argued for some time: female leadership may be more engaged on issues of social equality, sustainability and innovation, making societies more resilient to external shocks. We have run some statistical analyses on available data on the coronavirus pandemic and a series of dimensions of public health, social progress, basic human needs and economic resilience.
Current data show that countries with women in position of leadership have suffered six times as few confirmed deaths from Covid-19 as countries with governments led by men. Moreover, female-led governments have been more effective and rapid at flattening the epidemic’s curve, with peaks in daily deaths again roughly six times as low as in countries ruled by men. Finally, the average number of days with confirmed deaths was 34 in countries ruled by women and 48 in countries with male-dominated governments.
Of course, correlation is not causation. But when we look at most female-led governments’ approach to the crisis, we find similar policies that may have made a difference vis-à-vis their male counterparts: they did not underestimate the risks, they focused on preventative measures and they prioritised long-term social wellbeing over short-term economic considerations.
Taiwan is a case in point, where the government of Tsai Ing-wen built on its previous experience with SARS and immediately introduced medical checks, isolated the most vulnerable population and enforced the use of masks, which massively reduced the risk of an outbreak and therefore made a lockdown unnecessary, unlike in most other east Asian countries—including the equally small Singapore, which instead suffered several waves of contagion. The New Zealand government of Jacinda Ardern was also prompt in implementing restrictive measures early on, resulting in limited contagion and a much shorter lockdown than in neighbouring Pacific countries.
A similar pattern occurred in Denmark, Norway and Finland, all ruled by women, as opposed to Sweden, where economic considerations trumped health concerns, resulting in what is currently the highest death toll per capita in Europe. In Iceland, too, targeted measures were immediately adopted, which made it possible to avoid shutting down all schools and limit the lockdown to a short period and to certain sectors only.
Over the past few years, most women-led governments have also placed a stronger emphasis on social and environmental wellbeing, investing more in public health and reducing air pollution (which seems to be closely associated with Covid-19 deaths). Our analysis shows that countries with higher female representation in national parliaments perform better in terms of reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, containment of air pollution and biodiversity conservation.
Some of these governments have also launched an international alliance to promote ‘social and ecological wellbeing’ as the cornerstone of their economic policies. These are all important features that make societies more resilient vis-à-vis external shocks.
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that women-led countries are also likely to suffer the least from the ensuing economic recession: growth forecasts for 2020 indicate that they will experience a decline in gross domestic product lower than 5.5 per cent, while countries with male leaders will shrink by over 7 per cent.
Sources: Social Progress Imperative, World Bank, European Commission and national central banks
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There is probably not enough hard evidence yet to demonstrate that there is a clear ‘female factor’ at play, but these stark differences cannot simply be treated as coincidental. On the one hand, we believe that structural conditions matter: women (especially progressive women) are more likely to take up positions of leadership in societies that have already internalised important values of equity, solidarity and collaboration, which are usually associated with healthier communities.
On the other hand, the leadership style promoted by some of these female leaders may also matter: they have explicitly adopted development philosophies that are centred on social and environmental wellbeing, understanding that this has a positive effect on society’s resilience and benefits the economy too. It would be wise for their male colleagues to take note.
Countries with female leaders include Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece (president), Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia and Taiwan. Countries with male leaders include Austria, Bulgaria, Brazil, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and USA.
Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, Jacqueline McGlade, Ida Kubiszewski, Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson, Enrico Giovannini and Robert Costanza contributed to this article, which first appeared on openDemocracy.