CRED blog series - Female leaders have proved themselves during the COVID-19 crisis - Now it’s time to empower a new generation
15 June 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on country leaders who have managed exceptionally well the crisis – they are disproportionately women. Heads of state such as Angela Merkel (Germany), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Erna Solberg (Norway), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Iceland), Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Sanna Marin (Finland), and Mette Frederiksen (Denmark) have won praise in the media for their leadership style during the pandemic: clear and direct communication, decisive early action informed by science, humane and empathetic approach to managing the collective anxiety. Importantly, these countries have had comparatively lower rates of infection and death. Of course, comparisons need to be carefully contextualised given differences in geo-political contexts, country sizes, and pandemic-related reporting practices. There certainly are countries led by men that have also handled the pandemic well; but there are few countries led by women that have handled it poorly[i].
A vast body of social science research demonstrates that in order to become leaders, women are held to higher standards of competence than men[ii]. As a result, women’s pathway to the top entails less margin for error and a requires constant need to prove one’s competence. Perhaps this partially explains why these female heads of state have had a more prudent and expertise-based approach to handling the pandemic.
Will these positive examples of female leadership during the pandemic challenge entrenched assumptions about what “good” leadership looks like, and how women can make effective leaders? It is probably too early to tell - but by showing us a different way of wielding power, these female leaders remind us about the importance of diversity in leadership. Many of these female heads of state seem to successfully manage the notoriously difficult tension between being agentic (assertive, dominant, ambitious, forceful) and being communal (interpersonally sensitive, kind, helpful, affectionate) as a female leader[iii]. Embodying her values of kindness, Jacinda Ardern reminded New Zealanders about the importance of looking after neighbours and acting for the greater good. Sanna Marin held a press conference only with and for Norway’s children. At the same time, both of them acted swiftly and decisively in imposing lockdown measures, making potentially unpopular decisions and communicating difficult messages in a compassionate, empathetic manner.
More broadly, the current crisis brought a renewed appreciation for the importance of human connection, which under the circumstances is limited to online. Despite the physical distance, people are seeking ways to reconnect with their networks (but not in the sense of building political capital necessarily), check how everyone is doing or really an opportunity to share experiences on how they manage life in crisis. Being so universal and disconcerting, the crisis has created a basis upon which everyone is experiencing similar emotions (positive and negative) regardless of their seniority at work, and everyone is forced to work in a drastically changed set up. This underscores the importance of building quality relations in the workplace, displaying flexibility in managing work relations, and overall leading more compassionately.
The collective enthusiasm for positive examples of female leadership during the pandemic needs to translate into sustained future attention to the female leadership pipeline in politics and business. Ironically, as we see congratulatory media coverage for these very visible female heads of states, women in junior and mid-career leadership roles across all sectors are disproportionally affected by COVID-19. Across societies and socio-economic strata, women still shoulder a disproportionate share of household and (child)care responsibilities. Under the strain of the lockdown, this will lead to reductions in working time and productivity, reduced access to career-enhancing opportunities, increases in part time or precarious employment or even exit from the labour market. BAME women might also have to contend with the disparate health effects COVID-19 has had on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities[iv]. Thus, while the pandemic impacts all employees, women’s careers are disproportionately affected (for a more in-depth discussion, see our previous CRED blog on “Crisis and the sharing of caring”[v]). Generations of future female leaders are being pushed out of or stalled in leadership pathways by these amplified gender inequalities.
Evidence from past pandemics demonstrates that they increase existing inequalities; it is no different when it comes to COVID-19 and gender inequalities in leadership. We thus need a gender-sensitive response and bold action from organizations and policy-makers to address pandemic-related gender inequities and their long-term effects on the gender balance of future leadership ranks. The time for talking the talk is over. It’s time for action. Below we set out three suggestions.
Documenting how the pandemic affects the careers of women in the pipeline
Our research has documented that women’s career progression to leadership is already paved with gender-specific obstacles (e.g. biased leadership development advice can place women on less upwardly mobile career pathways[vi]). With added gendered career penalties, the current context might only make the ‘glass ceiling’ ‘thicker’. Organisations need a data-driven approach to monitoring how the pandemic affects women’s careers, which should inform organizational interventions to buffer these gendered effects. For instance, AI technology is being discussed in recent years as the emerging game changer in HR practices; it is seen as a means to facilitate recruitment or to drive changes in HR and leadership development practices within organisations. Perhaps one of the best applications of AI could be to collect data on women’s career trajectories and to identify patterns that explain the effects of the pandemic on women’s careers. Data on these differential career penalties should then be used by organisations to inform tangible and bold interventions that put women’s careers back on track (e.g. ensure access to increased developmental opportunities in the aftermath of the crisis).
Reconfiguring collective understandings of what ‘good’ leadership looks like
The positive examples of female leadership and the expansion/questioning of leadership skills called for in this crisis will hopefully broaden our collective understanding of what ‘good’ leadership looks like, fostering more gynandrous leadership models (i.e. that embrace both so called ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine' behaviours)[vii]. This could shape organizations’ future recruitment, promotion, and leadership development agendas. If organisations institutionalise gynandrous leadership, it could lead to democratising selection and upwards progression as we move away from the “white male” job applicant profile which is still prevalent in recruitment in many industries, to one where more rounded and gender-inclusive leadership skills are sought and valued.
Investing in women’s leadership development
With the economic uncertainty this crisis brings, it will be tempting for organizations to halt investments in their leadership development, and in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda more broadly. Decision-making around who gets support for leadership development (and who doesn’t) may also become more political, due to limited resources. However, now is not the time to freeze spending for leadership development or to neglect talent management interventions meant to support female talent. Perhaps the challenge is to find novel, more cost-effective ways of supporting women’s careers by debiasing core talent management processes that will remain in place and by proactively putting on the D&I agenda the gendered (including the intersectional) effects of the pandemic. After all, values get tested during crises and this pandemic will reveal how committed organisations truly are to gender equality in the workplace.
[ii] Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
[iii] Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109: 573-598
[vi] Doldor, E., Wyatt, M., & Silvester, J. (2019). Statesmen or cheerleaders? Using topic modelling to identify gendered messages in leadership developmental feedback. The Leadership Quarterly: 30(5)
[vii] Athanasopoulou, A., Moss Cowan, A., Smets, M. & Morris, T. (2018). Claiming the corner office: female CEO careers and implications for leadership development, Human Resource Management, 57(2): 617-639