The same unilluminating comparisons are happening now. Merkel’s nickname might be “Mutti,” but she’s a disciplinarian mom, not a touchy-feely one. Her leadership style is more influenced by her scientific background than by her second X chromosome. (Although, of course, how she is perceived and treated is definitely influenced by her gender.) The way Merkel governs is unlike Ardern—who, in turn, is more like Canada’s Justin Trudeau than like any other female leader. Both Ardern and Trudeau sell themselves heavily on their social and environmental awareness and ability to communicate sensitively with minority groups, and both have faced accusations of self-regarding piety as a result.
So what can we say about women leaders? Again, it’s hard to draw conclusions from general research, because the kind of person who becomes a senior politician is, by definition, unusual. He or she needs talent, ambition, drive—and favorable life circumstances. In countries that are unused to female leadership, any woman who succeeds is likely to be exceptionally tough and determined to rise up the ranks.
One finding that might have a bearing on this debate, though, is that women, even women in leadership roles, appear to be more risk-averse than men. The research on that is far from settled, but society certainly thinks that women are more risk-averse, and so female leaders find it easier to champion and communicate cautious policies such as school closures or mandatory mask-wearing. Being macho, however, is a liability. On March 3, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted that, “I was at a hospital where there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.” Weeks later, he was in intensive care.
What about the argument that nurturing and nannying are what people need now? We should be wary of the superficially appealing argument that women leaders are better because they are “empathetic.” That’s an essentialist view of gender—men are X, women are Y—and one that has tended, historically, to hold women back. Just think of the Victorians who argued that women were the “angel in the house”—delicate, sensitive, beautiful creatures who were too saintly to trouble themselves with the nasty business of earning a living, going to university, or having the vote. This argument also ignores the fact that many successful male leaders have been praised for their empathy: People skills are an asset in a functional democracy, where winning votes matters.
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The final potential explanation for why countries with female leaders appear to have done better in this crisis is the most thought-provoking. Women find gaining power easier in “a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government,” Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at NYU, told The Guardian. A country that elects a strongman—or where a strongman can hold on to power, once elections become a sham—is an already troubled country.
So let’s not flip the old sexist script. After centuries of dogma that men are naturally better suited to leadership, the opposite is not suddenly true. Women leaders aren’t the cause of better government. They are a symptom of it.