Throughout this pandemic, certain countries have had much better outcomes than others — Taiwan, Finland and New Zealand for instance. And these relatively positive outcomes aren’t necessarily correlated to their smaller populations or previous experiences with epidemics. Rather, they are largely shaped by one shared characteristic of these otherwise very dissimilar countries: women leaders.
These leaders acted quickly and decisively when COVID-19 first crept into their borders, taking the necessarily aggressive steps needed to stop the virus in its tracks. Taiwan didn’t need to officially enact a shutdown and Finland will gradually reopen schools starting on May 14th. These positive outcomes are not tied to individuals’ idiosyncratic leadership styles, but rather unforeseen outcomes of the patriarchy.
Women are raised under the constant and pernicious guise of scrutiny, essentially trained to seek others’ approval. Therefore while it may have been unconscious, these leaders’ actions may have been guided by the fear of backlash to their handling of coronavirus. As a result, they correctly “overcompensated” in ways that male leaders did not or even refused to do. The latter are taught from day one that they are entitled to their opinions and are qualified to handle anything that comes their way.
Now, look at the world we have because of that cultural norm. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the U.S., Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and France — all led by men — have the highest total deaths attributable to coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Yet the only women-led country that has deaths in the thousands, Germany, still has approximately 3.5 times fewer deaths than the lowest of the aforementioned male-led countries, the U.K. This is not a matter of population size: Germany has almost 20 million more residents than the U.K.
Under a sociological lens, this gaping disparity goes back to how society raises women. Because it often picks them apart under a microscope, women are socialized to become more cautious and receptive to criticism. In the context of this public health crisis, that manifests as a willingness to listen to experts as opposed to taking their own word for it. Most politicians do not double as public health experts, and these women wholeheartedly accepted that fact.
They did not try to promote falsehoods as fact and actively put their own constituents’ lives in danger. If any of these leaders even tried to deny the presence of the virus, they’d undoubtedly be met with a flurry of criticism, as well as disparagement in the media. Yet when President Donald Trump carelessly touts unproven cures to coronavirus, sales of hydroxychloroquine rise and his constituents leap to his defense. Those are demonstrations of approval for something a woman could never get away with socially.
That isn’t to say that Trump has endured zero criticism for his poor response — a lot of which has been repeatedly tied to his ignorant worldview. Rather, his position as a man lends him unfounded credibility and unjustified protection from criticism by his followers. A woman leader who enacted a Trumpist response would be dealing with a very different set of cards right now.
Is that even a viable comparison, though? There are so few women in such high-level positions of power — an intended consequence of how young women are socialized. Thanks to how the entertainment world often portrays women, they are repeatedly told that their value as a human being is derived solely from their appearance. This begins the insidious process of self-objectification, greatly diminishing their confidence in their potential political efficacy.
Further, on the rare occasion that there are women leaders to look up to, they are needlessly assailed by the media. Subsequently, young women are taught a negative and gendered form of power. Ambition transforms into avariciousness and emotional intelligence is conflated with irrationality. If this pandemic has taught us one thing about leadership, it’s just how crucial empathy is to a job well-done.
Often, dissecting systematically imposed injustice can leave one feeling hopeless. Everything is so intertwined that progress feels next to impossible. But it is happening, and there are actionable steps that can be taken to move it along even faster. Journalists ought to report on the positive things that women are accomplishing to the point of normalcy. Their accomplishments should not incessantly nor constantly be attributed to their gender or a “triumph” over sexism. Making misogyny the centerpiece of a woman’s story can only cause more harm than good.
And women are not oppressed solely on the basis of their gender: discrimination takes place on numerous levels. These leaders’ work during COVID-19 are huge feats that ought to be celebrated, but they are also mostly cisgender white women. We have to be thinking about the fact that their white and cis identities lifted them into positions of leadership that are even less accessible to women of color and trans women.
A gendered analysis of these successes is not enough to bring about equality or equity in this world — feminism should be intersectional.