by Peter Franklin
Monday, 22
March 2021
Debate
11:54

Are female leaders really so different?

The EU crisis suggests that the gender of politicians is not important after all
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion


  • Most male vs female differences are on aggregate, not absolute. Groups like politicians, nurses, engineers have already filtered for most of the differences. Women may on average be less interested in engineering than men, but female engineers are a lot more interested than the average man. The same is true for politicians, to become one you need to be driven, arrogant and not overly principled, traits that may be more common in men, but which certainly aren’t lacking in female politicians.

  • I agree with your comment overall, but one sentence: “In all likelihood, it is not determined by that person’s genitalia.”
    Genitalia affects hormonal levels. In case of women, hormonal levels constantly change, and later in life they experience one profound hormonal change, all of which for many years adversely affects female emotional stability and balance. As a result, feelings for them often outweigh logic.
    My life experience confirms that, female leaders (and employees in general) are less balanced emotionally than their, on average, more logical male colleagues.

  • A rather patronising post (work it out for yourself). BJ may waver at times, but in terms of vaccines he (or his govt/appointees, whichever you prefer) got it right. The chief executive of Valneva a (French) pharma company whose vaccine is entering mass production (in a plant set up in Scotland) spoke recently about how the British vaccine taskforce recognised the potential of his Covid vaccine proposal, bunged him 96 million euros, ordered 40 million doses and set up a factory to make it. The EU gave him very little notice.
    Anyway, the point I’m making is that the UK vaccine taskforce was led by Kate Bingham, who did an amazing job and deserves a lot of credit for the success of the UK vaccine rollout.
    The Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine was developed by a team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University. The vaccine was tested across the globe and is being mass-produced in India to supply vaccines to the world. I read an interview with Prof Gilbert recently where she described cycling to work at 4am every day; talked about her (adult) children joining the vaccine trials…
    There is no shortage of women succeeding in senior roles, if you care to inform yourself.
    And of course there are plenty of women in senior roles, like Ursula von der Leyen who (like many men in senior roles) are completely f***ing up.

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