Coronavirus: Can we explain how political institutions have responded through the leaders’ sex?

Feminism: a very apt movement for the 21st century. Could it be argued that the approaches that governments took to respond to Coronavirus were influenced by masculinity and femininity? Is it a coincidence that the countries that have tackled coronavirus quicker and had lower cases are the countries led by women?

The executive and style of leadership of a country is imperative to the type and success of responses used to tackle the pandemic. The executives of the English and the American governments compared to those of Norway, New Zealand, Scotland, and Finland are important case studies to show contrasting styles of leadership and responses to the Coronavirus. Analysing the Norwegian response, Tom Christensen of Oslo University described Norway’s situation as one of, “competent politicians, a high-trust society with a reliable and professional bureaucracy, a strong state, a good economic situation, a big welfare state, and low population density”. According to Chistensen, Norway is a great example of a government that tackled the pandemic quickly and efficiently, “by adopting a suppression strategy, followed by a control strategy, based on a collaborative and pragmatic decision-making style, successful communication with the public”. The response of the Norwegian government combined with, and complemented by the nature of Norwegian society, has seen the country deal with Coronavirus extremely successfully. At the time of writing, Norway’s total reported cases were just 15% of its neighbour, Sweden’s, despite the similar nature of both countries, and Sweden’s population being roughly twice that of Norway’s. With Erna Solberg at the helm, Norway has been an example of effective and decisive governance in the times of Coronavirus.

In the UK however, the executive’s response has been far from exemplary, with deaths now reaching over 50,000. ‘The Independent’ reported that “Researchers from University College London (UCL) found that the proportion of people in England distrusting Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis has doubled in the six months since the start of lockdown”. This UCL research further stated that the UK public trusted other institutions over Boris Johnson’s government. The UK’s crisis management has been lacking to say the least, even though, according to Christensen, “crisis management is most successful when it is able to combine democratic legitimacy with government capacity”: qualities that the government of one of the greatest democracies in the world should have in abundance. As well as this the UK and the US did not have a plan even when China announced their cases from Wuhan in December 2019. The UK and the US are examples of a different and less decisive approach to the Covid 19 crisis. This happens to have coincided with them being  two of the countries that have been worse affected with the UK having 1.34 million total cases, while New Zealand, an example of a country whose executive has acted decisively, has had just 1,998 cases.

This could be due to differing populations, however, there are areas of political theory that argue the existence of a link between political leadership and gender due to gender differences, be they inherent biological ones or socialised ones. And with Coronavirus throwing governments around the world into crisis, political leaders are being tested to their limits. Political crisis is a sure way to test political theory, so if a significant difference between the genders that effects political leadership does exist, then the times of coronavirus are a perfect opportunity to observe it. Research by Australian Academics, Carol Johnson and Blair Williams suggests that in relation to coronavirus, women leaders have adopted “protective femininity”, which incorporates women’s hereditary attributes and characteristics of being “caring” and “empathetic” and are putting citizens’ health at the heart of the responses rather than the economy, which it is argued is what Boris Johnson has done. “While male leaders have built on the role of male head of household and warrior defender”, which has been arguably evident through the differing approaches. A headline from ‘The Times’ argued that “Women are the stronger sex in this crisis.“. Leaders such as Sanna Marin (Prime Minister of Finland), Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland), Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Erna Solberg (Prime Minister of Norway) all have had some of the lowest cases globally and in comparison to the US’s 10.8 million and the UK’s 1.34 Million. It is argued this is due to “effective messaging and decisive action”. The prominent male leaders such as Trump, Johnson and Xi Jinping have been heavily criticised by the media for being ‘weak’, ‘self interested’ and have been accused of ‘lethal incompetence’.  Whereas female leaders such as Ardern have been praised by media for introducing a “strict lockdown while insisting on saving lives and a kindness‐first approach”, these quick and fast decisions have “resulted in a remarkably low death toll in each country”.

However, is the variation in the responses of different national executives and number of cases due to a binary difference between masculinity and femininity or are other factors such as population density and political ideology more prevalent in the struggle of political institutions against Coronavirus.

It could be argued that gender has had a less significant role in the varied responses to covid-19 and that the political ideology of the governing party has instead shaped the policies and approach of governments. According to the Guardian, the US, Russia, Brazil and the UK are in the worst 10 countries affected by coronavirus and all these countries are governed by nationalist-populists or politicians that appeal to the populist right. Furthermore, research  in the US conducted by ‘CBS’ and ‘YouGov’ “found that 90% of Democrats said the number of coronavirus deaths in the US was unacceptable … and 57% of Republicans said it was acceptable, in part because they believe the death count has been exaggerated“. This not only demonstrates a difference in ideology among leaders but also a difference between democrats and republican voters in regards to their opinion toward the pandemic. Such a drastic difference in attitude to Coronavirus between voters for each party will be reflected in who they voted for, both because of fundamental ideology but also due to the practical need for politicians to appeal to their voter base.

Rational choice theory is an effective way of explaining the right-wing ideals in approaching coronavirus, rational choice theory is firmly based on self-interest. As the philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued, all humans are self-interested and self-driven, it is part of their human nature within a developed modern society, so in relation to leadership, right wing leaders have focused more on the economy and the negative freedom of individuals to not have the government interfere in their day to day actions and desires, even if that interference is in the name of protecting the health of a wider society. The individualistic view and objection to government interference that neo-liberals and many conservatives hold is arguably not an effective approach to responding to a pandemic as it is a collective issue. It could be argued that the self- interested view of right wing idealists meant they had an ignorant and complacent  approach to the pandemic that has resulted in more Americans dying than in the whole of the Vietnam war. Under more classical forms of conservatism, paternalistic governance is desirable. This entails governments being politically dominant and making decisions centred on protecting those who they represent. However, strong, decisive and dogmatic leadership has not characterised Johnson’s strategy that has had little clarity in the view of the public and has led to a lot of miscommunication and confusion. Johnson’s failures could therefore be seen less as a result of ideology and more a result of pure incompetence. It could be further argued that political ideology has no relevance as political leaders such as Sanna, Marin, Justin Trudeau, Nicola Sturgeon and Erna Solberg, are all centre/right- or right-wing leaders and tackled the virus relatively efficiently and quickly. These leaders do however happen to be mainly female while Justin Trudeau’s image is certainly not one of hegemonic masculinity like that of politicians such as Bolsonaro or Putin, neither of whom have succeeded in curbing the spread of COVID-19 throughout their nations which they are supposedly the protectors of. 

From the account above it is imperative to realise that women in leadership roles have made a significant difference in the ‘covid- world’ that we live in. However, is it not that simple and other factors such as ideology and agency proxy will have played a significant role in the differing approaches to tackling coronavirus.

Is it time for more female leaders in our parliaments? Will their hereditary characteristics make them more efficient leaders in the 21st century? Will we see the success of leaders such as Jacinda Arden proceed more women taking important leadership roles in governments around the world? 


2 thoughts on “Coronavirus: Can we explain how political institutions have responded through the leaders’ sex?

  1. A Sabokbar says:

    Extremely intersting and fresh look at the gender approaches to the pandemic. I do however have to point out empathy, knowledge, intelligence and a little common sense would go a very long way, regardless of gender, race, colour and ethnicity.


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