Why are women-led nations doing better with COVID-19?

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Monday was a day of triumph for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Thanks to the efforts of the entire nation, she said, New Zealand had been largely successful in meeting its ambitious goal of eradicating, rather than just controlling, outbreaks of COVID-19. The lockdown she had put in place March 25 could now end.

Ardern’s success is the latest data point in a widely noticed trend: Countries led by women seem to be particularly successful in fighting the coronavirus.

Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a far lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy or Spain. Finland, where Prime minister Sanna Marin, 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10% as many deaths as nearby Sweden. And Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown.

We should resist drawing conclusions about women leaders from a few exceptional individuals acting in exceptional circumstances. But experts say that the women’s success may still offer valuable lessons about what can help countries weather not just this crisis, but others in the future.

German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a press conference on government’s measures to avoid further spread of COVID-19. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool/AFP)

Brown M&M’s and Male Politicians

Rock band Van Halen famously included a clause in its tour rider that required venue managers to place bowls of M&M’s in their dressing room. But “WARNING” it said in underlined capital letters, “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.”

The clause’s true purpose had nothing to do with chocolate. Rather, it was an easy-to-spot signal of whether the venue’s managers had taken care to read and follow the entire set of instructions in the rider — including the safety guidelines for the band’s extremely complex sets and equipment.

Just as the absence of brown M&M’s signaled a careful, safe venue, the presence of a female leader may be a signal that a country has more inclusive political institutions and values.

Varied information sources, and leaders with the humility to listen to outside voices, are crucial for a successful pandemic response, Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland, wrote in an op-ed in the British Medical Journal. “The only way to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots is to ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are made,” she wrote.

Having a female leader is one signal that people of diverse backgrounds — and thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives on how to combat crises — are able to win seats at that table. 

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