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June 7, 2020 //

Women in Leadership During Covid-19 – PART 1

As I continue to dive into the subject of women in leadership (in preparation for our Agile Women Leaders Certificate Program, launching in July), the next logical step (given that COVID-19 impacts virtually every narrative on the planet) was to examine whether women leaders are out-shining male leaders during this epidemic. And more importantly, what this means for women leaders who are wading through the implications of this crisis at YOUR organization?

At first, I considered the stories (which began to surface very early…perhaps too early…in the crisis) that women leaders were excelling during the epidemic, to be little more than echo chamber chatter.  But slowly but surely, article after article, it became impossible for me to ignore the the data behind these assertions.

So I began to explore two questions “Have Women Made Better Leaders During Covid-19?”, and if so, “Why?”.  And if you’re someone who likes to skip to the end of the story, my research shows that YES, women have proven to be more successful during this time of crisis.  Why?  Because they are, by nature, more AGILE.

But before we jump ahead….let’s go back to the beginning…and move through the logic behind my conclusions step-by-step.  In the first article of this “Women in Leadership During Covid-19” Blog series, it would be irresponsible not to present the relevant history and data, before diving into the more speculative (and some might say debatable) causation theories.

HISTORY AND DATA:  By the end of February 2020, leaders across the globe were looking at essentially the same facts:  An invisible and dangerous enemy was fast approaching.  COVID-19 was highly contagious, unpredictable and deadly.  Leaders across the globe faced an unprecedented test, and the ones that passed this test with flying colors were disproportionately women…despite the fact that women make up only 7% of heads of state.  So in some ways this moment in history offers a fascinating and real-time opportunity to understand the consequences of leadership decisions in a high-stakes situation.

According to nearly every infectious control expert, it all comes down to when governments began to implement/enforce physical distancing.  For example, according to Trish Barrett, a 25-year veteran in infectious disease control (with 19 years in supply chain and emergency management):  If you really want to understand an apples-to-apples comparison of whether communities have been effective in slowing the spread, you have to look at three numbers:

  1. The number of new cases per week
  2. The number of cases per 100,000 people
  3. The rate at which the number of cases per capita doubles

It turns out that when you look at the data that way, 3 factors emerge as having a significant impact on the spread of the disease (and ultimately deaths):

  1. Population density
  2. Exposure to those who traveled
  3. Date when things were shut down.

And while the first two factors cannot really be influenced by leaders, the third factor (the “shut-down” date) is directly related to actions taken by leadersAnd, the number of COVID-related deaths is indisputably, and substantially, lower in areas where leaders acted sooner…even by as little as one week.  Cities, states and countries that implemented a clear, thorough and well-executed social distancing plan at least a week before the first death had radically different outcomes than those that didn’t.    In short, they flattened the curve and controlled the acceleration of new cases.

Sure enough, the countries of Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Finland (all governed by women) fall squarely into this category.  And in U.S. states like California, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed (the first black woman to ever hold that office) took action days before the Governor of California AND the Mayor of Los Angeles (both men).  In Michigan (my home-state), which was among the hardest hit by the pandemic, Governor Whitmer did not respond as quickly as some of the other female leaders, but once she did declare a state of emergency (on March 10), her “stay-at-home” measures were swift, extremely restrictive and have lasted longer than in virtually all other states.

[By the way, Governor Whitmer’s restrictions were met with violent protests and venomous criticism, both locally, and by President Trump who repeatedly criticized her actions/statements/decisions…referring to her as “Gretchen Half-Whitmer”… or more simply (and perhaps more derogatorily in his mind)…“that woman from Michigan”.  But I digress.]

Regardless of the social and political response, the history and associated data suggests that, yes, women leaders by and large acted first, and made bold and wildly unpopular decisions to shut down life as we knew it in the face of an invisible (and still largely speculative) “enemy”.   And at first glance, I (like many others) chalked this phenomenon up to the “people-skills” of women and their ability to engender trust through more naturally empathic communication.  But as I found out after digging a bit deeper, there is much more to the story.

So, in this Blog series, “Women in Leadership During Covid-19”, I will address the key factors associated with why women leaders have thus far outperformed male leaders during this crisis.  Stay tuned….

And in the meantime, comment below:  Do you agree with the basic premise of this Blog series?  And if so, why do YOU think women leaders have excelled during the COVID-19 crisis?  We’d love to hear from all of you!

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