The myth that countries led by women have dealt better with COVID-19

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have suggested that countries led by women have fared better than those led by men. This popular narrative has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, Vox, the Harvard Business Review, Stanford Medicine, and NBC News. It’s simply not true, according to a new study.

For example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s success in “flattening the curve” attracted initial attention and speculation about the role of leader gender in mitigating the deleterious effects of the pandemic. Iceland has garnered similar praise. Recently released scholarly analyses also suggest countries led by women have six times fewer deaths than those led by men.

Researchers at the University of Memphis, University of Essex, University of Nevada, The University of Mississippi, Bucknell University, and the University of Kentucky say these reports fail to acknowledge men-led countries that have done similarly well, while instead emphasising carefully selected cases where men have not performed well.

The authors write:

The key findings from our analysis are as follows: first, across multiple methodological approaches we find no statistically significant difference between the reported COVID-19 fatality rates in countries led by men or women. Free countries tend to have higher reported fatality rates in the month after the first case, but as time progresses the differences between Free, Partly Free, and Not Free become less stark. Wealthier countries, and those with older populations, have more reported fatalities. The length of land borders has no effect on reported COVID-19 fatalities, and land area matters at some points in time, but not others. The role that women in parliament plays is somewhat surprising: more women in the legislature is associated with increased reported Covid-19 fatalities, which we will discuss further below.

Our results suggest that countries led by women are qualitatively different from those led by men, as the double bind and cultural differences theories would predict. From a theoretical perspective, female leaders’ should be ideally positioned to govern better than male leaders through a global pandemic crisis. Female leaders’ focus on communal policies should bolster their countries’ baseline preparedness, while also fulfilling the more masculine agentic frame in their ability to intervene decisively in times of crisis, such as closing borders and mandating quarantine. The underlying cultural values that differentiate countries who have fared better and worse during the pandemic, alongside gendered leadership patterns, will likely matter in the long run in determining how countries and their citizens fare in the post-pandemic landscape.

It may seem puzzling that countries with more women in the legislature fare worse during the pandemic than those with fewer women. However, we note that women’s representation is related to gender quotas, which many countries, especially in the developing world, have adopted after ratifying CEDAW. Gender quotas may have counterintuitive effects, especially in Partly Free or Not Free countries. Tripp and Kang suggest that gender quotas may be symbolic, used strategically to obtain women’s votes, or create new patronage networks. The adoption of gender quota legislation by countries may also be a part of a post-conflict peace settlement, or may be used by a country to strategically signal their commitment to democracy. Similar to Collier’s argument about the deleterious effects of rapid democratisation—elections without checks and balances, it is likely that rapid or exogenously-influenced adoption of gender quotas may not offer deep social protections in the way that countries with endogenous growth of women in political leadership might have.

Women chief executives have gendered incentives related to the political double bind to attend to both masculine and feminine leadership traits. Women leaders can both care for the national family during a pandemic crisis, while also leading with decisive actions such as closing borders, issuing executive orders, and addressing security-related pandemic concerns. Based on our results, we suggest that public opinion coalesced around the idea that women-led countries were managing the pandemic better following their notable public policy speeches given in mid-March, specifically by the leaders of Germany and New Zealand.

We note several caveats that also likely impact our findings. First, countries led by men far outnumber countries led by women, biasing the sample. We corrected for this using nearest neighbour matching. Second, testing and reporting policies have changed repeatedly within countries in our sample during the reporting time: some countries suffer from well-known under-reporting biases, and some countries like Belgium may be over-reporting.

Third, women chief executives tend to govern smaller countries, both in terms of geographic and population sizes. While Jacinda Ardern’s leadership has engendered massive public support domestically and abroad for COVID-19 policies related to lockdowns and quarantining, it is comparatively easier to close the borders of a remote island nation than in countries that share multiple, lengthy borders and major international transportation hubs. However, as our land borders variable was not statistically significant, this is clearly not the case everywhere.

Fourth, perceptions of women’s successful leadership may also be a product of Western news bias. Researchers studying the phenomenon of pandemic in outcomes in countries led by men or women have amplified this bias by selecting a subset of cases that demonstrate the expected outcomes. Few news outlets have covered Vietnam’s successes, notably zero COVID-19 fatalities as a result of swift, comprehensive action. It could be that countries with previous epidemic or pandemic experience, like Vietnam, are in a better position to anticipate and respond to the current pandemic. Yet as Bosancianu, et al, find, exposure to SARS, MERS, or Ebola does not offer more social protection.

Finally, the fatality rate is not the only metric by which a leader or country should be judged. The overall pandemic management strategy, including policies implemented to alleviate suffering and mitigate risk, should be comprehensively evaluated to assess how well a leader or country is faring. While sex or gender may not offer immediate protections against the deadliness of COVID-19, these traits may offer important buffers against downstream problems that could emanate from the effects of the global pandemic, such as social destabilisation or contentious political behaviour. Women-led countries may fare better in the long run in part due to the strength of institutions, increased trust in government, and decreases in corruption that female leadership engenders.


This study is the first to comprehensively address the roles of women leaders and women legislators in mitigating the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to Bosancianu et al, we find that there are no differences in reported fatalities between women-led and men-led countries. The theory of the political double bind helps explain why women leaders in countries like New Zealand, Iceland, Germany, and Taiwan have garnered ubiquitous praise for their leadership, as they are excelling at deploying both masculine and feminine leadership traits during the pandemic.

However, it may be that we researchers are asking the wrong questions. Women chief executives pursue different policies from their male counterparts, and women in legislatures are less corrupt and more trustworthy, at least optically for constituents. Given the important role of countries’ cultural foundations, perhaps we should also be asking about long-term orientation, societal power disparities, and collectivist policies influence countries’ post-pandemic future trajectories. For example, will countries that have women chief executives and favourable cultural values fare better in the long term while dealing with the aftermath of COVID-19? And, will these countries have lower unemployment numbers, better re-opening plans, and less nationwide and individual economic damage?

It is important to note that while some women chief executives have shown impressive governance during the COVID-19 crisis, this has not translated to statistically significant differences in decreasing the number of cases or deaths in their countries. Early in the pandemic, for example, Belgium—then led by Sophie Wilmès, reported high numbers of COVID-19-related fatalities, in part because they were including deaths in nursing homes and suspected deaths as part of their official count. It is possible that this inclusiveness, ensuring that every death counted and mattered, itself was a culturally relevant phenomenon and that leader gender amplified it.

The number of women in parliament did not provide protections either. These results need further disentangling, and suggest that we need to rethink our metrics about what success in the pandemic means, and which exemplars we should be following. Perhaps the economic effect of a pandemic on GDP or other social measures are areas of future research. Too, perhaps the traits of our sample need further analysis. Quiet success stories like Vietnam should be amplified, and we should also continue to investigate the extent to which COVID-19-related interventions have a gendered component. We reiterate that there are only sixteen women chief executives from which to draw conclusions. Evaluating gendered policymaking requires a larger sample of women chief executives. Our results reflect the reality that building resilience is a preparative process, and therefore that pandemic outcomes today depend on policymaking choices made far in advance.


Study Details

Gender in the time of COVID-19: Evaluating national leadership and COVID-19 fatalities

Leah C. Windsor, Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Alistair J. Windsor, Robert Ostergard, Susan Allen, Courtney Burns, Jarod Giger, Reed Wood

Published in PLOS One 31 December, 2020


In this paper we explore whether countries led by women have fared better during the COVID-19 pandemic than those led by men. Media and public health officials have lauded the perceived gender-related influence on policies and strategies for reducing the deleterious effects of the pandemic. We examine this proposition by analyzing COVID-19-related deaths globally across countries led by men and women. While we find some limited support for lower reported fatality rates in countries led by women, they are not statistically significant. Country cultural values offer more substantive explanation for COVID-19 outcomes. We offer several potential explanations for the pervasive perception that countries led by women have fared better during the pandemic, including data selection bias and Western media bias that amplified the successes of women leaders in OECD countries.

PLOS One study (Open Access)



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Countries led by women coped better with COVID-19 pandemic

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