Do women lead differently during a crisis?

In this op/ed, Jessica N. Grounds and Kristin Haffert, founders of Mine The Gap, an organization helping businesses bridge gender gaps, say we must consider what we’re missing when women aren’t at the table tackling the biggest challenge of our lifetime.
Image: German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a media statement on the spread of coronavirus at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a media statement on the spread of coronavirus at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 22, 2020.Michel Kappeler / Reuters

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By Jessica N. Grounds and Kristin Haffert

If more governments and companies were led by women, would the world be better prepared for this global pandemic? Far fewer women lead countries, run governments, and manage major institutions. Women comprise 25 percent of parliaments around the world, 20 women hold the position as head of state or government out of 193 nations, and 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs in the United States are women.

Beyond the hope that many women (and some enlightened men) hold for an increase of women’s influence on our governments and businesses, there’s evidence to suggest that having more women in leadership positions does make a difference in improving outcomes – meaning, we all might be better off during this pandemic.

Beginning with leadership style, we start to see differences. For example, women tend to exhibit a collaborative and democratic style; men more often use a command and control approach. While arguments can be made in favor of either approach, researcher Alice Eagly explains that women more frequently blend the two and exhibit a highly effective, androgynous leadership style called transformational leadership. Transformational leaders act as inspirational role models, foster good human relationships, invest in their teams, develop the skills of followers and motivate others to reach beyond the scope of their job descriptions. These are all qualities we can all appreciate, especially right now.

Better still, we see examples of how women handle crisis and risk differently, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crisis. Iceland is one of the few countries that fared well following the global economic downturn, thanks to the leadership of women who brought the country out of financial collapse and ultimately ushered the country to economic growth. Fast forward 12 years, and Iceland’s female leadership continues to have an impact. Their cutting-edge response to COVID-19 is being noticed worldwide for its aggressive testing and tracing practices, providing real-time data for the world.

At Mine The Gap, where we advise companies to build gender-inclusive workplaces, we find that women show three major leadership attributes that are crucial in crisis. Women are risk aware, they prioritize safety and they look at the whole picture.

Risk

For women, a greater sensitivity to risk shapes decision-making in ways that lead to different outcomes than when men are making the decisions. As we respond to COVID-19, we weigh various risks to our own health, our families and the public.

Research by Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall found that men tend to increase risk-taking under stress, while women decrease risk-taking in stressful situations, and obviously a marked difference in taking action that reflects those risk-reward ratios could have an impact on the spread of the virus. And a study by Dutch neurobiologist Ruud van den Bos found that men have a tendency to take more risks under pressure, but for women pressure leads to improved decision-making performance.

Safety

Consider the importance of safety equipment like personal protective equipment to our medical professionals and caretakers during this crisis. It’s causing stress for health care workers, and the lack of it is putting them in harm’s way and increasing the death toll in their community.

Research by the International Finance Corporation found that companies with more women present established safer working conditions, compared with companies employing fewer women. Examples show that women leaders have prioritized prevention or worked to build a culture of safety among employees, one of the goals of the International Labour Organization. Another angle of safety is addressing unsafe conditions. It has been widely reported that domestic violence is on the rise as we practice social distancing and people remain home. This safety issue, exacerbated in times of conflict, requires leadership and awareness-building, more often championed by the women in charge.

The whole picture

Brain research unlocks a gendered difference in the way men and women process information, showing us that women use both the logical and intuitive parts of their brain. Men tend to be more targeted in their approach to solving an issue, while women view challenges in an interconnected way. This interconnected approach seems particularly important as we manage the impact of COVID-19 and the recalibration of the way we live.

Every decision needs careful analysis and both approaches are imperative. And in our own work advising companies how to recruit and retain female talent, we notice that women managers frequently possess a deeper understanding of the challenges their staff are facing inside and outside the office. This leads them to be more effective managers. Women leaders bring a different approach to problem-solving by taking in a variety of factors; they develop solutions that address the complexities they face.

The pandemic will enable new insights on how our leaders handle the biggest modern crisis of our time. The decisions of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have shown how women leaders have taken early and decisive action to impact the COVID-19 curve and ultimately save lives in their countries. In the U.S., Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon and Gov. Meg Whitmer of Michigan, for example, acted aggressively in response to the growing crisis, averting a larger and more complex ripple effect beyond their jurisdictions. Fortune recently recognized Mayors London Breed of San Francisco, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Jenny Durkan of Seattle, in “The World’s 25 Greatest Leaders: Heroes of the Pandemic”, shining a light on their innovative responses under intense pressure. In examining their decisions as executives that have saved potentially thousands of lives, let’s consider what we’re missing when women aren’t at the table tackling the biggest challenge today, and perhaps more important, the one that comes next.

Jessica N. Grounds & Kristin Haffert are the founders of Mine The Gap, an advisory firm working with companies, organizations, governments, and political organizations. Their company is headquartered in Washington, DC & San Diego, California. Jessica and Kristin have each worked on issues impacting women’s leadership for over two decades. Their work has taken them across the globe working in over 75 countries and in every region of the world.