March 22, 2021 - 11:54am

The United Kingdom is now vaccinating more than one per cent of its population every day. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Boris Johnson is not in fact a woman. 

You may doubt that the Prime Minister’s sex is a salient fact in this matter, but then that’s because you weren’t paying attention last year. In 2020 we were treated to a succession of articles and op-eds suggesting that countries with female leaders were notably successful in their response to the Covid crisis. For examples see the Guardian, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Guardian again, the Independent, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times again. 

It’s true that in the early stages of the pandemic quite a few of the countries that had got off lightly also happened to have female leaders — for instance, Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan. However, other relatively successful countries had male leaders — for instance, Israel, Japan and Australia.

That didn’t stop the commentators from breathlessly essentialising these outcomes to the sex-based qualities of leaders like Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern. It may be that there are some differences between male and female leadership styles on average, but the idea that these were more important than factors like geographical isolation, population density and long-standing governmental capabilities was always nonsense.

In any case, the pipeline of nonsense has run dry. In 2021, comment editors are no longer interested in the idea that female leaders are better in a crisis. Here are three reasons why:

For a start, the ‘analysis’ behind the argument doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. The sample of female-led countries is too small on which to base any robust statistical argument. 

Secondly, not every country held up us a success has stayed that way. The Covid virus has a habit of upending expectations. Some countries that were doing well are now doing not so well (e.g. Germany); others that were doing badly are now doing better (e.g. Britain). And it could all change again. 

And thirdly, we have the less-than-shining example of European vaccine fiasco. It so happens that female leaders like Ursula von der Leyen, Angela Merkel and Stella Kyriakides (the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety) have played a prominent role in this episode. Does that mean that there is specifically female quality to what’s gone so badly wrong?

The answer to that is obviously no. But if you want to play identity games you’d better have an answer when the facts stop fitting your narrative.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.