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What the Data Really Says About Women Leaders and the Pandemic

Two new research papers try to shed some light on a popular theory, but the evidence is still very weak—and could point to confirmation bias.

By: Hilda Bastian. July 1, 2020

IT’S A CLAIM that went viral quickly: Women leaders were more likely to crush it in the pandemic than their male counterparts. At first, few seemed to question whether this were true, though plenty debated why it would be so. Was it because of the women themselves, and their more “female” leadership style? Or was it a signal about the societies that elected them? Whatever the explanation, belief in the phenomenon itself may have only gained adherents since. “There seems to be a pattern here,” tweeted the prominent physician Eric Topol just the other day, noting there is now “real data to back this up.”

On one level, I get it. I’m a firm believer in the importance and benefits of diversity in leadership, including gender diversity. And I, too, have Jacinda Ardern envy: The New Zealand prime minister’s ability to ace any given task leaves me in equal parts impressed and wishing, “if only.” Angela Merkel’s off-the-cuff explanations of epidemiological concepts have been a joy. My longing for this sort of leadership was intensified by living in the US for the first two years of its reality-TV presidency—and I’m no fan of the (male) prime minister of my home, Australia, either. But jumping from so few examples to the conclusion that the gender of political leaders has been decisive during this pandemic? That just looked to me like confirmation bias.

The theory, in its standard form, skated over certain inconvenient facts; for instance, how early it was in the pandemic, and how badly some “women-led” countries were doing. One particularly prominent story—with more than 8 million views as I’m writing—came out on April 13 in Forbes. The author, a professional gender-balance consultant, made her case with a few cherry-picked countries. Not mentioned? The fact that Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès, was notching up the world’s highest rate of Covid-19 deaths per million population for any country (other than a microstate in northern Italy). Another story in this genre began by singling out Silveria Jacobs, the prime minister of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, for her exemplary handling of the pandemic’s risks. According to Worldometer, Sint Maarten currently has the twelfth-worst rate of Covid-19 mortality per million among all listed countries and territories. Given that women make up about 10 percent of national leaders, the presence of Wilmès and Jacobs on the bottom-20 list for this key metric doesn’t support the thesis that women leaders are doing any better (or any worse) than men.

Women leaders are still so unusual that they stand out and draw a lot of scrutiny. I needed more than a few high-profile cases of their success—Ardern, Merkel, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, etc.—to have an opinion about the women pandemic better narrative. So a few weeks ago I did some very crude calculations based on data sources that are themselves pretty crude. For example, I used Wikipedia’s list of 22 current elected or appointed female heads of state and government, without differentiating whether each woman was a governing leader, such as Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg, or serving in more of a titular role, such as Slovakia’s president Zuzana Čaputová. (The media narratives mostly avoid this distinction, too.) The “women-led” countries were not more likely to have below-average mortality rates per million population. That doesn’t answer the question about leadership performance, of course, but it left me skeptical.

Now we have more formal data. Two sets of academics tried to analyze differences in Covid-19 outcomes among countries with men and women leaders, and they posted their results as preprints in June. Each concluded that countries led by women have done better. But not only were both studies vulnerable to bias; neither found a statistically significant overall difference based on gender. Their approaches could not overcome the fundamental problems caused by the small sample size of women leaders.

The first study, posted on June 3 by Supriya Garikipati from the University of Liverpool and a colleague, did try to distinguish between women leaders in governing and less powerful roles. While they didn’t find a significant difference in Covid-19 cases and deaths based on leaders’ gender, they did find an effect after using modeling to match pairs of male- and female-led countries with similarly sized elderly populations, health care expenditures, and openness to tourism, among other factors. They don’t report enough data to assess the result, though—not even which 19 countries they judged to be “female-led.” This is the kind of study that badly needs to have a protocol set down, and available for scrutiny, before running any analyses at all. In the absence of that step, a reader would never know whether the choice of factors in the final model was changed midstream or whether unfavorable analyses were done but not reported. What’s more, with so many factors in their analyses of this small group of countries, the risk of coincidental associations is perilously high; and, at the same time, other issues that could be important weren’t included in the model at all, such as whether a country is an island nation.

The second study, posted June 12 by Soumik Purkayastha and colleagues at the University of Michigan, did what I had done—use Wikipedia’s list of female heads of state and government without differentiating between types of leaders. They excluded countries with fewer than 100 people with confirmed Covid-19, and ended up with data for 18 women-led countries. That approach adds bias in favor of women leaders, because from what I can see, the method disproportionately excludes “male-led” countries that managed to keep the coronavirus at bay.

It’s easy to find examples of how tricky it can be to make sweeping claims based on these small numbers. Four out of the five major Nordic countries are led by women, who in turn make up a sizable chunk of the women in the recent studies and media narratives described above. It’s often pointed out that the Nordic countries led by women—Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland—have contained the pandemic much better than the one led by a man, Sweden. But what difference would it have made if Sweden’s prime minister had been a woman? Swedish law forbids the country’s political leaders from overruling a recommendation from its public health agency, and that’s where the pandemic control decisions were made.

I’ve been watching all this play out while living in a small country town in Victoria, Australia. Our current prime minister is a man from a conservative political party, but we had a progressive woman prime minister from 2010 to 2013—and one whose international reputation derives in part from her rousing speech in parliament about misogyny. That makes Australia both “man-led” in this debate, and a country with the characteristics of one that elects a non-man.

For us, the pandemic overlapped with our summer fires disaster. The prime minister’s handling of that could hardly have been worse, and confidence in him was rock bottom. Like others who lived in high-risk parts of the country, I had been through months of tension, and even evacuated from my town at one point back in November. When the pandemic started, I was still obsessively checking the fire emergency app—toggling between that and the latest news on Covid-19, sometimes interrupted by the sound of fire sirens going off again.

To see that graph of Covid-19 infections shoot up vertically in March was terrifying. With no confidence in our prime minister, and Australians apparently being the world’s first and worst panic buyers, it didn’t look good. In hindsight, I think the panic buying may have been the first sign that our community was taking this pandemic seriously, and that we would soon rise to the occasion. Although Australia is struggling with an outbreak now, we still have the same (very low) rate of four Covid-19 deaths per million population as New Zealand.

It wasn’t charismatic leadership that got us this early success. The Australian team couldn’t match the dynamic Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield partnership in New Zealand. (If boring PowerPoint presentations by retirement-age white males are your bag—“Next slide please”—you would have loved our daily Covid-19 briefings!) It didn’t matter.

What did? From my vantage point, a lot of parts of our society functioned just well enough to make things work. Our political leaders at the state and federal levels formed a national unity cabinet and suspended their usual hostilities. Strong public health infrastructure and pandemic preparedness, a strong economy, universal health care, income support that made staying home economically viable for a large proportion of the country, and a strong journalism culture all played a role. And an educated, community-minded population was able to pull together, just enough.

Would we have done any better with a woman prime minister? Maybe. Depends on the woman, doesn’t it? In looking across the small number of women political leaders, one finds what has been called “a muddled history.” Handling this pandemic well is going to be about far more than containing the virus for several months. Success will also mean mitigating the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic including racial and social disparities, achieving high enough vaccination levels if and when that time comes, meeting the potential tsunami of long-term health needs for people post-Covid and those in long-term care, and establishing excellent pandemic preparedness for the next one.

That some women leaders will excel in all these areas is certain. Their inspiring, high-profile displays of leadership and communication will continue, too; and, I hope, be emulated by their peers. That reality is exciting enough for me, as a feminist. As a scientist, I’ll wait for better data before claiming the gender of certain individuals in governments was decisive. We won’t solve gender bias with more bias.