A gender analysis of leadership offers some explanation as to the links and why women’s leadership is crucial in a crisis. Firstly, the fact that women face higher barriers to leadership in the first place, requiring them to be more competent than men in the same position has been noted.
Individuals such as Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, have also been praised for an empathetic and inclusive leadership style, which while not solely female traits, are in contrast to aggressive, individualistic approaches that are more traditionally thought of as male. As the COVID-19 crisis is revealing at the starkest levels how interconnected our communities are, and requiring solidarity based responses to protect each other and our collective services, leadership based on these values is resonating.
In CARE’s experience responding to humanitarian emergencies around the world, women’s leadership in crises goes far beyond heads of state. In fact, women leaders, including women’s rights organisations, are often on the frontlines of responding to crisis. They are playing a leading role in affected communities, helping everyone in those communities – women, men, girls and boys – survive, cope with and adapt to the crisis. And evidence shows their leadership is essential for more inclusive and effective responses.
There are three reasons why in this crisis in particular, women’s leadership is more important than ever:
1) Women bring different perspectives, essential to understand and respond to the crisis
The crisis is deepening existing inequalities between women and men. Women face unequal loads of unpaid care and domestic work, increased rates of domestic violence, and problems accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare. Having more diverse leadership and people in decision-making power helps to ensure that policies are designed with these inequalities in mind – and can work to address them rather than make them worse. When women and other marginalised groups aren’t at the decision-making table, interventions can fail to be effective. The Ebola response, for example, has been criticised for failing to take account for how women’s caring responsibilities interacted with prevention measures.
2) Preventing rollbacks on gender equality and human rights
Moments of crisis can often be when the status quo is disrupted and social norms are broken. Women leaders can make progress in these moments – for example research has shown in post-conflict societies, women can have higher political representation. However, there are also major risks that the COVID-19 crisis gives rise to a rollback on gender equality. More women in Sierra Leone are reported to have died from obstetric complications in the 2013 to 2016 Ebola outbreak than of the disease itself, because resources were diverted away from sexual and reproductive healthcare. The impacts of the economic crisis will also disproportionately affect women, and in some cases governments are using the crisis to install authoritarian measures that could have long lasting implications for women’s rights. Supporting and standing in solidarity with progressive women leaders is therefore crucial at the time of crisis.
3) Laying the path for a more equitable, fairer world
Whilst individual women do not have uniform priorities or leadership styles, the values and practices that are inherent to feminist leadership – focusing on inclusivity, addressing intersecting inequalities and valuing long term well-being over short term economic gain - are crucial for societies to recover from COVID in a sustainable and resilient way. As discussions begin about how to recover and what type of societies and economies we want to build for the future, the COVID-19 crisis shows the imperative to value care work, prevent future climate crisis and ensure fairer, more equal economies. Diverse, women and feminist leaders will be leading the way towards these paths. The Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19 is an early example. The alternatives - structural adjustment programmes and austerity measures - will only deepen inequalities and make future crises more likely.
In the short term, the humanitarian response to COVID-19 should include measures to fund and consult with women-led organisations and women leaders at all levels. In the longer term, governments and civil society should ensure that the values of feminist leadership are used as a basis to inform the ongoing recovery efforts and build more resilience for the future.