June 1, 2020

Female leaders are excelling. Here's why.

I was a quiet kid at school. Well, not only a quiet kid. I was the quiet kid at school. If there had been an award for Most Unlikely To Say Something Out Loud, it would have been awarded to me, along with a loudspeaker so people could hear my acceptance speech… Which wouldn’t have happened, because I wouldn’t have given it.

But Miss Shibaru, the Religious Education teacher, she saw me. She would come up with innovative and fun ways to learn about religion, like meditating in Buddhism class, or having a competition to see who could keep their arm raised the longest, in honour of peaceful protester Amar Bharati. I won that competition, and it was all for Miss Shibaru.

There are people in our lives who seem to puncture the outer veneer of difficulty which many of us carry around with us like an overcoat. They notice the voices unheard by others, and they see the opportunities to bring people up, even if it doesn’t benefit their image.

This is what autocrats (or those who veer towards autocracy) miss in their leadership. They’re so busy taking absolute control over every aspect of their governance that they don’t take the time to question their views, step down from the limelight, and say the words “I don’t know”.

The top down approach is how society traditionally perceives good leadership. Strength against an anthropomorphised enemy, as so many leaders have characterised this pandemic, is simple, and asks for a central power figure.


Winston Churchill is widely praised for this style of governance during World War Two, and we’ve fallen into the trap of assuming that that’s the only way to find a way through a crisis.

Indeed, in a study examining perceptions on leadership, the Harvard Business Review found that the only two negatives assigned to male leaders were the words “arrogant” and “irresponsible.” Their positives, on the other hand, were numerous. They were “analytical,” “competent,” “dependable,” “confidant,” “logical,” and “practical.” Men in positions of authority can only go wrong, according to peers, by going too far in their hubris.

To flip the dial, female leaders were given far more negative attributes, almost the exact opposite of their male counterparts. They were “frivolous,” “inept,” “opportunistic,” “selfish,” “passive,” and “excitable” to name but a few. The highest compliment given was the word “compassionate.”

This reflects our cultural attitudes when it comes to gender and leadership. We can deal with a female leader as long as she is being motherly (Angela Merkel is referred as Mutti, or mother, in Germany), whereas when she displays any other attribute, she is criticised.

As per the Harvard Business Review, a huge body of work has found that when women are collaborative and communal, “they are not perceived as competent — but when they emphasise their competence, they’re seen as cold and unlikable, in a classic ‘double bind’.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Collaborative leadership: the new way

In an investigation for The Conversation, journalists examined the OECD’s gender parity study. The study measures participation of both genders in society, and opportunities available to each in terms of access to health, education, and employment. They found that countries that have fought the pandemic most effectively and are led by women rank highly on this list.

The report also shows that those same countries rank highly when it comes to having women on corporate boards. In a study on business management and gender, consulting firm McKinsey, through their paper Delivering Through Diversity, found that businesses with a more equitable gender balance perform better financially, because they avoid traditional managerial, supervisory, and controlling power dynamics that are associated with male-led businesses.

The more egalitarian the country is, the better it will be managed through a crisis. In those countries, power is enhanced by the complementary nature of two genders contributing.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as it appears. Measuring by mortality rate, statistically female leaders aren’t doing any better than their male counterparts. In EU countries, median death rate per capita in female-led countries isn’t statistically different from those in male-led countries, and this is mirrored in the US.

However this crisis isn’t all about the immediate numbers. It’s about how much trust one builds up with a population, the compliance to policies and the feeling of security and wellbeing that you bring to your people. This dictates how a country will fare 2–5 years from now, when these leaders may well no longer be in power.

In Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the titular character Alexander Hamilton asks himself, “legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Many of today’s heads of state could take heed from this.

Leadership Traits To Admire

If this is the new normal, and if we are going to see a reaction towards more diverse leaders, what traits are they going to bring to the table?

Alice Evans, psychologist at Kings College London, outlines her findings: “what we learned with Covid is that, actually, a different kind of leader can be very beneficial, [and] perhaps people will learn to recognise and value risk averse, caring, and thoughtful leaders.”

Alice Eagly, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, has posited that the current crisis may have made the stylistic difference between genders more noticeable. “The most robust sex differences that I found in leadership style are women’s greater tendency toward participative, relational leadership, and men’s more top-down, autocratic leadership.”

This is echoed in a recent interview with previous US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. When asked about her opinion of why female leaders are experiencing a surge in faith, she said that high cooperation, dependability and adeptness to multitasking, giving a peripheral vision on multiple topics, were all factors for this. She also added a natural ability (perhaps, she posited, from having to bring up children), for having people get along.

Madeline Albright
Madeline Albright

The current pandemic presents a multilayered problem, which requires collaboration and cooperation from different departments, communities, and types of people, and as such “these aren’t situations in which one leader has autocratic power over another leader. So this particular crisis is not a situation that can be controlled top-down, as our president has found,” Eagly says.

This isn’t to say that men can no longer lead. But the traits that so many male leaders have used to take and hold power are no longer as valuable today as they once were. As the Black Lives Matter protests currently taking place in the US and across many cities worldwide have shown, a new form of power is emerging, one that has a voice amplified by social media movements and collective action. This shifts culture and it shifts our understanding of what a leader looks like, and how they behave.

Alice Eagly has some advice for male leaders: “Be less dominant. Let other people have some time to talk.” It sounds simple, but the fact it is only really appearing now proves that sometimes the simplest solutions can be the best.

Illustrate a leader

If I asked you to close your eyes now and think of a leader, I’m sure you’d probably imagine a whole range of people from your experience, perhaps your personal life, who come to mind. Having read the previous paragraphs, I’d imagine you’re probably trying to correct the cultural bias and imagine as many female leaders as you can!

But without these thought patterns, and asked off the cuff, who would you think of?

This is what Tina Kiefer, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Warwick, looked into. When asking participants at a training program she was running to “draw a leader,” both men and women almost always drew a man. In a further study on the phenomenon, when offering new ideas, men tended to gain status and leadership qualities in the eyes of participants, while women did not.

What’s happening here is confirmation bias. If we see something enough, we seek to see it again, and look to confirm our beliefs to reinforce them in our minds. Effectively, the more men we see as leaders, the more we picture them as one.

An example of a “great leader”
An example of a “great leader”
Their traits, from the experiment
Their traits, from the experiment

Yet the antidote is simple. The phenomenon can be broken down by spending more time with one another. A study published in Personnel Psychology found that during group participation when there was little interaction, men emerged as leaders more often than women, but that changed when the participants spent longer than 20 minutes with the women, or when the task given was highly complex. Given a chance to break through our biases, we all have the capacity to shift our perspective.

As I found out at school, a good leader can not just include you, but give you the feeling of being heard. I wouldn’t have made it through school with my sense of self intact if it hadn’t been for Miss Shibaru. This may well be the feelings of the people of Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, and Finland right now.

Female leaders have stepped up and proved to the world a new, better style of leadership. It’s time for us to follow through in education, in cultural representation, in artistic representation.

This starts in schools and at home. If you have a child, ask them to draw a leader, and see what they do. It may surprise you.

More Work
February 19, 2024

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