Men and women are different. While they are equal in their status as human beings and deserve exactly the same entitlements for doing the same job, that is not to say that different genders have different strengths and weaknesses. Coronavirus spells out exactly when women leaders are at their most valuable.
“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak.”
This quote from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, encapsulates an experience that most, if not all, women leaders have had to endure. ‘Soft-touch’. ‘Maternal’. ‘Pushover’. Many women have a story to tell when it comes to being ruled out of a leadership selection process because they do not demonstrate qualities that are typically possessed by men.
Women’s strengths as leaders are often reversed and presented as shortcomings. Empathy – undoubtedly a strength of both male and female leaders – is often framed as a woman’s weakness; demonstrations of understanding or emotional connection with other employees are used as a basis to conclude women lack a cutting edge or a capacity to make difficult decisions.
“I totally rebel against [these descriptions]. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
Prime Minister Ardern’s unflinching commitment to both understanding and strength is a manifestation of what a lot of women leaders – workplace, political or otherwise – have known for their whole careers: their natural strengths are conducive to leadership. In fact, these characteristics often make women especially good leaders in times of crisis – and you only have to look to the Coronavirus pandemic to see that.
Machismo seems to be the virus’ best friend. As noted by Sady Doyle, male Presidents and Prime Ministers who have adopted an aggressive attitude towards the virus – proclaiming how their countries will beat it without having to radically change their ways of life – have suffered because of the pandemic. President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are both prime examples of this. Their cavalier approach has seen their countries’ curves steepen markedly. In contrast, leaders who pay respect to the power of the virus by avoiding risk, promoting co-operation, and prioritising safety have guided their countries towards security. In particular, Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, described Ardern’s strategy as the “most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world at the moment.” He declared New Zealand “a huge standout as the only Western country that’s got an elimination goal” for the Coronavirus.
These discrepancies align with social psychological research which suggests women and men have different responses to stress; women are inclined to promote group safety more than men, while more men have a ‘fight or flight’ response. In essence, more male leaders are inclined to take on the virus, which is impossible, while more female leaders accept our human limitations and do everything they can to preserve public safety. It is absolutely pivotal to understand that this isn’t a general rule. Plenty of male leaders are much closer to the ‘empathy’ pole than the ‘macho’ one when it comes to fighting Coronavirus. But the research is important in demonstrating that many women’s natural tendencies as leaders are vital in times of crisis and put them at an advantage.
It supports the idea that empathy should not be a bar to becoming a leader; it should be a propeller.
There are many lessons we can draw from this as executives and organisational leaders. The one that deserves underlining is this: women leaders thrive in crises. If there is ever a time and place for restrained resilience, empathy and a focus on collective safety in our organisations, it is now. Managing crises is about balancing priorities. If we over commit to the long-term security interests of our organisations, we may leave our team members vulnerable. We will get through this with empathy and self-assuredness – most women have that in abundance.
Not everyone is the same. That is not the point we are making. Women are not better leaders than men. Nor are men better leaders than women. What we are trying to say is that you should broaden your understanding of what it means to be a leader. Empathy is not weakness. In fact, it is its own form of strength.
That is what makes so many women leaders great in a crisis.