It has long been said that crises define leaders, and COVID certainly qualifies. The past year has demanded leaders embrace traits not always associated with high offices and boardrooms: empathy, listening, creative collaboration, and authentic engagement with employees. These qualities are overwhelmingly associated with women.
The pandemic has presented us with a real-time experiment in leadership, and the data shows that we are in good hands when women are at the helm of nations and companies alike. Women aspiring to leadership positions in business have a unique opportunity to show their value, and they should seize it.
But men shouldn’t leave the responsibility to women alone. Leaders of all backgrounds could benefit from the lessons proven by female leaders of late.
From the early days of the pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern captured headlines for the swift and comprehensive actions she undertook to prevent the spread of COVID in her island country. Her success and the resultant popular support were noteworthy, but so too were the displays of raw emotion uncommon among leaders of nations. In showing her own vulnerability and concern for others, she demonstrated a keen emotional intelligence and dispelled the myth that compassion and humanity are shortcomings in a leader.
Ardern was not alone. Women leaders have also been successful in Taiwan, Finland, and Germany, among other places. Why? Some recent research conducted by Supriya Garikipati at the University of Liverpool and Uma Kambhampati at the University of Reading can give us an idea. This past fall, they published a paper titled “Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?” They found it does for several reasons.
First among these is how men and women recognize and assess risk. Garikipati and Kambhampati found that from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, women leaders have been more risk-conscious regarding their constituents, prioritizing human lives above other concerns. The authors note this tendency tracks with prior work in behavioral research, and turned out to be a more successful approach over time than riskier COVID responses like those enacted in Brazil or the U.S.
A second characteristic of female leaders that the paper focused on was their leadership style. Women are more likely to develop flatter, more democratic management structures, and prioritize “clear and decisive communications” and personal relationships. These factors make teams and nations alike more agile by inviting diverse input, allowing for faster and locally informed decision-making, and enhancing accountability.
Other data suggests women in the business world also manage crises more deftly. While numerous studies show having more women in management positions is good for the bottom line, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman have found they performed better during the pandemic as well. While women tended to slightly outperform men prior to the pandemic, the researchers discovered that the difference has grown larger, “possibly indicating that women tend to perform better in a crisis.”
Taken together, these two studies could help us reassess how we view leadership, and perhaps acknowledge that empathy, connection, and humanity are at the core of successful management models for the future.
While everyone is ready to be on the other side of the COVID crisis, new global challenges are emerging. From climate-related dislocation to worker displacement owing to automation and A.I., leaders have an opportunity to apply lessons learned from the pandemic and be better prepared for the demands of the future.
Women have proved time and again they are able to excel when given the reins. Whether maintaining morale in challenging work environments or ensuring project teams can prosper in difficult circumstances, this crisis has exposed what many of us already knew: Women are underrepresented at the expense of society.