Just over two years ago, Britain, and other countries around the globe, were plunged into a national lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic; the impact of which we are still feeling to this day. Many have discussed the differing responses to the crisis and whether this is related to the gender of those in charge of decision-making.
Just over a year ago, the United States of America placed Kamala Harris to its second highest-ranking office of Vice President. She is also the first Asian American and the first African American to do so.
Just over a month ago, Cressida Dick resigned as the Commissioner of the Met Police, the highest post in the police force in the UK. She was also the first openly LGBTQ+ officer in the position.
Why does having women in positions of leadership matter? Can society learn anything from the way women in leadership dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic compared with men? Does having women at the highest levels of society sometimes mask systemic issues?
Women and COVID-19
How did women in positions of political power react to the pandemic? How did this compare with their male counterparts?
An analysis of 194 countries in 2020 found that in the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 outcomes were “significantly and systematically better in countries led by women” and that this may be partially explained by the fact that female leaders were more likely to adopt “proactive policy responses”. While there was slight difference in the number of cases between female-led and male-led countries, COVID-19 deaths were markedly lower in countries where a woman was in charge. How developed, first-world countries fared with female leaders compared to male leaders tells us something about the benefits of having women in power. The research cited reasons such as that women tend to be “more risk-averse”, are better at “anticipating negative outcomes” than men, and “sex differences in feelings of empathy”.
Some questionable remarks were heard from male leaders in the early days of the pandemic. Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, instinctively diminished the virus by referring to it as “a little flu or a bit of a cold”. Boris Johnson said, only a matter of weeks before catching COVID-19 and ending up in hospital, that on a hospital visit he “shook hands with everybody”, and that is without mentioning the string of unscientific and irresponsible COVID-19 disinformation spread by then US President Donald Trump both in the early days of the pandemic, and at every stage following, such as suggesting that “disinfectant” could be used to kill the virus.
The decisive and effective leadership of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, provide a strong and unignorable contrast. A study praised Ardern’s use of Facebook Live to communicate public health messages and that her “honesty and compassion” helped to “create a sense of unity” across New Zealand. Angela Merkel’s ability to use “her own scientific background” to break down complex scientific concepts underpinning the virus meant that Germans were “clear” on why the rules were being implemented. Taiwan, which has experienced the lowest number of COVID-19 cases and the second lowest number of deaths per 100,000, was widely praised for its response to the pandemic. One of those at the centre of Taiwan’s response was Audrey Tang, the youngest member of the Taiwanese cabinet and a trans woman. Tang created a system through which Taiwanese citizens could easily access real-time data to see which pharmacies masks were being stocked in. Masks are an essential tool to reduce the transmissibility of the virus and the mask system introduced in Taiwan undoubtedly contributed to the effectiveness of their response.
The contribution of women in science and healthcare to the COVID-19 response
It is also important to recognise the contributions of women to the creation of vaccines. Professor Sarah Gilbert, who was last year awarded the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce (RSA) Albert Medal, was responsible for designing the first COVID-19 vaccine. Previous winners of the award include Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, and Stephen Hawking. The award was testament to the innovation needed to create the vaccine and to roll it out at such an unprecedented speed. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the most widely used vaccine over the course of the pandemic, was also co-produced by the chief medical officer of BioNTech, a woman named Dr Özlem Türeci. Women were also more likely to be front-line workers: ~80% of healthcare workers are female, and 83% of workers who provide social assistance are women.
A pandemic within a pandemic: how COVID-19 has worsened the problem of gender inequality
However, while it does seem that women in leadership thrived in the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In 2020, women across the world lost more than 64 million jobs, which equates to 5% of the total jobs then held by women. Comparatively, only 3.9% of men’s jobs were lost in that same year. Even before the pandemic, women spent up to triple the amount of time as men taking on domestic tasks and unpaid care, and with the pandemic this invisible labour gap only increased. While women who took on front-line healthcare work should be admired and applauded, it is important to recognise that due to this, the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women.
Kamala Harris: an important figure, but how influential?
Kamala Harris: a welcome change
Trump left office little over a year ago and on 20th January 2021 was replaced by Joe Biden. There was nothing historic about Biden’s victory; those in the positions of President and Vice President (VP) have always been male and white. However, Biden chose Kamala Harris as his VP. Not only was she the first woman to ever hold the office of either VP or President and she is also the first woman of colour in either of these roles. When we consider the context of the USA over Trump’s presidency, her position as VP seems not only historic – but monumental.
Harris was tasked with two important tasks early on in her vice presidency: immigration and voting reform. These areas are known to be controversial, especially in the context of Trump’s presidency. He was responsible for the introduction of some of the most draconian policies around immigration ever seen in the country, and fed public distrust in America’s voting system.
Harris has been praised for her ability to listen, for centring women’s voices in a way that has not been seen before, and most importantly for visiting Guatemala and Mexico to address the root causes of the USA’s immigration crisis – something many of her political peers and predecessors have notably failed to do.
Kamala Harris: falling short?
However, while Harris has been praised for some elements of how she has approached the issue of immigration, she has also been criticised in equal measure. Mostly notably, she drew dissension for an over-simplistic and unfeeling message to Guatemalan migrants: “Do not come”.
In a country where voting has become an exclusively partisan issue in the USA, Harris also failed to make much of an impact on the issue. Biden’s recent bill, which would have expanded voter access especially in majority non-white communities, fell flat in the Senate.
Kamala Harris: a victim of the current political climate in the USA
As of November 2021, Harris has an approval rating of 28%, one of the lowest ratings in modern history. While it is entirely possible that Harris’s approval rating was low due to factors not within her control, such as being treated more harshly than her predecessors due to unconscious bias, the fact that American politics is as divisive as it currently is, and that she has been tasked with tackling contentious issues, her lack of popularity reflects that a seat at the table does not always mean a say at the table.
While there was hope that Harris’s nomination as VP might change the nation for the better, it is hard to see how anyone, let alone someone who does not fit the status quo, could change the fundamental divisiveness that characterises American politics.
The confirmation of Ketanji Brown to the Supreme Court, who is the first Black woman in this role, is a necessary and valuable step towards diversifying and equalising the very top of the American judiciary. Slowly, but surely, women of colour are emerging into positions of power and changing the course of history. Though it is important to note that with a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, some of the same obstacles arguably apply to Brown as they do to Harris.
The Met Police, its former leader, and the institutional problems left over
When Cressida Dick was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service in 2017, then PM Theresa May lauded Dick’s “exceptional qualities” that May believed would allow Dick to lead the force effectively. London Mayor Sadiq Khan also praised her “experience and ability” and said this was what had made her stand out in the application process. She was the first, and only to date, female and openly gay Chief Commissioner of the Met.
In February of this year, Khan said he had lost “confidence” in Dick, and she cited this as the reason she decided to step down. What has happened over the last five years that caused such a dramatic shift in how Dick was perceived?
Sadiq Khan criticised the Met for the “deep cultural issues” within the Met with reports of men’s violence against women, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and bullying. It has been just over year since the murder of Sarah Everard by a former Met police officer and the backlash was immediate. The officer who murdered Everard had a history of criminality and was even known to past colleagues as ‘The Rapist’. A gathering formed to commemorate Sarah’s death was accused of breaching the COVID-19 rules that applied at the time was broken up by the Metropolitan Police – pinning women down in the process. The High Court ruled just two weeks ago, that the force used was “unlawful”. The Met Police have continued to come under scrutiny since then. For example, mistakes the police force made were found to have “probably” contributed to the murder of gay men at the hands of Stephen Port. The imprisonment of two Met police officers who took pictures of the dead bodies of two women murdered in a London Park in December 2021 was also another source of criticism. A few weeks before Dick resigned, it was uncovered that police at Charring Cross station had a group chat in which they made vile, offensive comments, such as joking about “slapping your missus about”. Just this week, it emerged that a Met police officer had been charged in March 2022 with sexual assault while on duty in March 2020.
While having more women in leadership roles is a necessary, and positive, thing for society, we must remember that this is not a quick fix or a cure-all to institutional, embedded problems, many of which disproportionately affect women and especially women of colour or otherwise marginalised women.
This article was written and edited by Grace Rosewarne and Aleena Khan.