Success of Women Leadership during COVID-19: At Risk of Essentialising “The Feminine”?

Contribution by: Diana Willemijn Helmich and Emma Post

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A contribution by Diana Willemijn Helmich (Research Master's student Gender Studies, UU) and Emma Post (Research Master's student History UvA) for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis.

One of the main topics of discussion about the international handling of the COVID-19 crisis is that it seems that countries with women leaders are doing a remarkable job in their handling of the pandemic. Female leaders such as Angela Merkel, Tsai Ing-wen and Jacinda Ardern are praised for their swift acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation and their decisiveness in implementing lockdowns. This is not just positive news because it means that millions of lives have been saved, but it also serves as a solid argument that women are effective leaders, therefore supporting the necessity of the inclusion of women in politics and policy making. Indeed, the media has been headlining with articles lauding the success of “female-led” countries over their male counterparts. We will argue, however, that this focus on “the feminine” might do more harm than good.

“Feminine” Approaches to COVID-19

Economists Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati were struck by the claims made in the media about female leaders during the COVID pandemic and decided to investigate it. They concluded that ‘women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities'. On The Conversation, an online platform that publishes news articles sourced from the academic and research community, Garikipati and Kambhampati explained their results by suggesting that women are less risk averse when it comes to financial losses and that women are more communicative.

Multiple media outlets came to strikingly similar conclusions. We focused on English language articles that are not behind a paywall in order to keep it accessible. The Guardian, for instance, stressed the communication skills of female leaders, as well as their kindness and family-oriented approach. According to the authors of an article published in the Guardian, female leaders have a warm style of leadership and even ‘show a sense of fun’. Forbes described female leaders as truthful, decisive, clear, but also loving, oriented towards children, empathic and caring. Euronews added to the list that women were more focused on the national well-being than on their personal political gain, which apparently leads to better cooperation and more intuitive working.

The New York Times (NYT) commented on the humility, caution and personal touch of women leaders. While the article in the NYT acknowledges the gender stereotypes at play, the authors added that exactly those traits that are stereotypically associated with women will help us get out of this pandemic. A blog on The Conversation sums it all up: ‘Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility’. This is juxtaposed by the military and demonising language from the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, who described their role under the current crisis as being at ‘war’ or ‘under attack’.

If we are to believe these articles, our way out of the pandemic is through female compassion, trust, love, and care. The notion that containing the spread of the virus requires a collective effort to protect each other has an undertone reminiscent of radical feminist politics: interdependence and community, focused on a form of solidarity for a future sustainable in the long-term. The celebration of the successes of female leaders is, on the surface, an amazing shift in how we view the role of women in politics, but at the same time also raises the question: is there a risk of re-essentialising femininity?

Male and Female Leadership: Essential Differences?

Although the above news articles praise female leadership and stress the importance of closing the gender gap, they reproduce more essentialist notions of the female domain, or what we perceive to be the role of women within society. Joan W. Scott argued that ‘gender’ would be a useful category for analysis precisely because it would undo biological determinism that is denoted in the word “sex” and “sexual difference”. If these articles would actually take “gender” as their category of analysis, they would be more careful to note that the word ‘female’ denotes the biological category of “sex”, whereas “women” refers to the socially constructed gender that has traditionally been attached to “female”. The public discourse around the successes of women leadership interchangeably use the word “female” and “women” – this conflation begs the question if indeed these articles that praise the leadership style of these women leaders actually undo essentialist notions of “femininity” (see articles listed by The Guardian, Forbes, Euronews, The New York Times and The Conversation).

According to a 1990 article performing a meta-analysis of the differences of leadership style between males and females, these differences in leadership style can be attributed to the fact that “women” are socialised differently. The article argues that “women” are shown to have a more democratic style of leading, as opposed to the autocratic style of “men”. The contemporary framing of the success of women leaders fails to question the process of socialisation that leads to different gendered leadership approaches, which causes the risk for these differences to be biologically essentialised.

The contemporary framing of the success of women leaders fails to question the process of socialisation that leads to different gendered leadership approaches, which causes the risk for these differences to be biologically essentialised.

By making differences in leadership-styles seem biological rather than social, the praise of female leaders reinforces the appreciation of the ‘female nature’, which has historically been used to relegate women to the private sphere. At the same time, it ignores that male leaders such as Justin Trudeau have also been praised for so-called ‘female qualities’, such as deploying a personal communication style and de-escalating situations of conflict. Perhaps more importantly, the articles mentioned above that signal a ‘feminine style’ treat women leaders as a homogenous group, which wrongly obscures the personal and political differences between them. It essentializes female leadership by implying that women – regardless of who they are and what they believe – rule in a specifically female way.

Thus, even though there is a “gendered” analysis regarding the different approaches of women leaders, the question remains whether this focus actually undoes any stereotypical, essentialist notions of sexual difference between men and women. The discourse around female leadership is characterised through vocabulary like empathy, love, and a personable approach. Emphasising that there is a ‘female style’ of leading the country, however, does not spark further questioning as to why women lead differently.

Opportunities for Change?

Dr. David Oppenheimer called the COVID-19 pandemic ‘an enormous chance to create opportunities for change’. This is the first time that the effects of a current pandemic on society are studied through an intersectional lens. Highlighting the successful approaches of these women leaders could offer a potential shift in the way we view basic values that are usually ascribed to sexual/gender differences. The values of a community based, empathetic, and personable leadership style that values human lives proves to be the most sustainable in the long term – why, then, should these values be pertained to the “feminine domain”? Isn’t this the time to undo the notions that these values are specifically feminine or female, and to further deconstruct the ever so sticky patriarchal notions of biological determinism for a more hopeful future?



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Diana Willemijn Helmich (she/they) is a second year student in the Research Master Gender Studies at UU. Her/their main interest lies in Critical Disability Studies, decolonial thought and praxis, and language and terminology. She/They are also currently the managing editor for issue 6.1/6.2 of Junctions: UU's Graduate Journal of the Humanities.

Emma Post MA (she/her)  is a student of the Research Master in History at the University of Amsterdam. She is currently working on the interwar period, with research interests that range from gender, to refugees, to transnational cooperation and colonial history.