World leaders who are women have been more likely to use language focusing on compassion and social cohesion when speaking publicly about the COVID-19 pandemic, while men focus on fear-based tactics, by either using war rhetoric or blame. That’s according to a study that adds to the argument about whether women have dealt better with the coronavirus crisis.
The debate on whether women leaders have had more success in handling the pandemic stems from the relatively low case and fatality rates in countries such as New Zealand and Taiwan. A total 31 million cases of the coronavirus and more than 961,000 deaths have been reported worldwide.
New Zealand, led by Jacinda Ardern, has had 1,815 and 25 deaths in a population of 4.8 million, while Taiwan has reported 509 cases and 7 deaths under the watch of President Tsai Ing-wen with a population of 23.8 million. The U.S., in contrast, leads the world in cases and fatalities, with more than 6.8 million and almost 200,000, respectively, in a population of 331 million.
The researchers analyzed 122 public addresses, statements and speeches made by 20 heads of government between February 26 and April 6 2020. Of the total, 61 speeches were delivered by women and 59 by men. When fewer than two formal speeches were available, the team looked at press briefings, statements to governing bodies and others aimed at the public, for instance in podcasts or video announcements. The authors submitted the study to the website MedRxiv as a pre-print, meaning it hasn’t been through the rigorous peer review process required to publish in scientific journals.
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Five themes emerged that were categorized as: economics and financial relief, social welfare and vulnerable populations, nationalism, responsibility and paternalism, and emotional appeals. The locations studied were: Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Scotland, Sint Maarten, the U.K, U.S., and Taiwan.
Almost all leaders mentioned how COVID-19 impacted the economy, but women were more likely to speak about the economy at an individual level and small businesses, while men focused on larger businesses and corporations. Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon was the only leader to speak about labor unions. U.S. President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron stood out for discussing economic support for smaller businesses, the authors said, but the former’s references to those were few when compared to mentions of large corporations and CEOs.
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Women leaders spoke about how the pandemic affected populations on a local or individual level, and were more likely to describe a wider range of social welfare services, according to the authors. This included addressing mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
Only women leaders acknowledged how the pandemic affected migrants and refugees, substance abusers, those with mental health problems, as well as family care responsibilities and domestic violence, according to the study.
When the team considered nationalism, Trump emerged as the only leader to consistently refer to the virus as “Chinese” rather than using its official or scientific name.
Of the politicians assessed, 17 of the 20 used metaphors related to war to describe the response to the virus. But men used them in greater volume in speeches and more often than women. Women were also more likely to use personal or empathetic language that focused on compassion and social cohesion.
The team said the study doesn’t show whether women or men have been better at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Acknowledging the limitations of their study, they said countries will have had different experiences with managing public health emergencies, which could affect the response and styles for communicating information.
Co-author Sara Dada, a research associate with the non-profit organization Women in Global Health, told Newsweek she was surprised by the “stark” difference in how men and women generated emotional engagement from the public, with men tending to reply more on fear-based tactics, by either using war rhetoric or blame, while women were more likely to stress social unity through personal examples and appeals for compassion.
Asked whether the study adds to the debate around women leaders handling the pandemic better than men, Dada said it is too early to declare any country more or less successful as the pandemic “is far from over.”
Co-author Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa, interim board chair of Women in Global Health and research associate at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, told Newsweek: “It is clear that women communicate differently and responded to the pandemic through an equity lens, with inclusive policy responses, encompassing health, economic but also social measures, leaving no one behind.”
Experts in the field who did not work on the paper said the study contributed to the ongoing debate on how gender affects outcomes in the COVID-19 crisis. Professor Uma Kambhampati, the head of the School of Politics Economics and International Relations at the U.K.’s University of Reading, told Newsweek it is important that leaders communicate their policies in clear ways amid the pandemic, particularly because they have been unprecedented and involve a significant curtailing of individual freedoms.
“I was surprised at how closely the communications confirmed the stereotypical male-female differences,” she said. Kambhampati said the study was limited because the team were “just comparing the communications” rather than offering a hypothesis.
The study adds weight to the idea that women have been better leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kambhampati said, as women’s communications skills may be one possible reason.
Jennifer M. Piscopo, associate professor of politics at Occidental College, told Newsweek the line between the gender of a leader and the outcomes of attempts to control the disease, like deaths, aren’t direct, and many other factors shape mortality that are outside of a leaders’ direct or immediate control, such as whether they are an island nation. “But speeches matter because people listen to them, and so speeches might provide more reliable information about how men and women leaders set different tones on COVID-19,” she said.
“It’s important to remember that women may emphasize social issues not because they are inherently different from men, but because voters and audiences expect women to do so—and punish women more when they do not,” Piscopo said.
“Another factor that matters here is leaders’ political ideology. The leaders—women and men—whose speeches made nationalistc appeals and talked more about war come from right parties and have strong law-and-order bents, like Donald Trump in the United States and Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia.”
Similarly to Piscopo, Alixandra Yanus, associate professor of political science at High Point University, told Newsweek there is a large body of research suggesting women may speak in a “different voice” to men, and not only emphasize different political issues, but also run committee meetings and courtrooms differently. This may be because of how they are naturally inclined, socialised, or because strategic women may be influenced by voter stereotypes, “which view, and, indeed, expect, them to be more compassionate, caring, and liberal.”
Yanus said for those who think emphasis on government spending on social welfare programs is an optimal strategy, even in a time of crisis, “this study validates the idea that women world leaders may be ‘better’ because they took actions more consistent with their worldview.
“But, those that would prefer a more limited government response and/or a greater focus on macro-politics may view the results of this study in a very different light.”
The study is the latest to explore the relationship between gender and leadership amid the pandemic. Not all have made similar findings. One article published in the journal Politics and Gender found gender had no effects on stay-home orders, school closures, and public information campaigns across countries. Another published in the same journal found a leader’s gender has little influence on whether citizens were willing to comply with policies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
However, a preprint submitted to the website SSRN, meaning it has not been peer-reviewed, by Kambhampati and Supriya Garikipati, associate professor of development economics at the U.K.’s University of Liverpool, found outcomes are “systematically better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses adopted by them.”