3 Business Lessons from Women Leaders Who Are Beating COVID

/ Christine Andrukonis

This week, in honor of Women’s Equality Day on August 26, we wanted to celebrate influential women, and who better to turn to than those in the women-led countries who are faring best in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?

A new study suggests that certain traits that traditionally have been associated with “female” leadership styles have been most effective at managing the spread of the virus. Although we are by no means at the end of this crisis, and there are plenty of male-led countries that are faring relatively well, there’s no denying that so far, women-led countries have been outshining the rest of the world.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on what’s been successful on the social frontlines of COVID, and how these traits can be adapted and amplified – by both male and female business leaders – to help organizations navigate through the ongoing crisis.

The study, published on the website of VOXEU CEPR, a research-based policy analysis group of leading economists, notes that their data “confirms that female-led countries have fared better in terms of absolute number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with male-led countries having nearly double the number of deaths as female-led ones.”1

Why? Here are three possible reasons that may be the result of a “female” perspective:

1.    They take a human-centric approach to risk

One answer might be women’s risk aversion, and how it is applied to crisis situations. The study notes that women-led countries were quicker to enforce shut-downs, and thereby minimized loss of life. However, “while women leaders were risk averse with regard to lives, they were prepared to take significant risks with their economies by locking down early.” “When combined with the findings from the risk literature, we begin to see how women leaders could have been risk-averse about anticipated losses to human life, while at the same time taking risk with negative financial outcomes associated with early lockdown.” In other words, they put their people first.

The take-away for business leaders: In the business world, it’s never been more urgent to put actions behind the credo “people over profit.”

2.    They focus on communication

A second factor in women’s leadership success, says the study, is their empathetic communication style, and the extra efforts they have made to engage impacted groups. “Indeed, the decisive and clear communication styles adopted by several female leaders have received much praise in the ongoing crisis (e.g.  Henley and Roy 2020, McLean 2020, Taub 2020).  Thus, in Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke direct to children answering their questions, while in New Zealand Prime Minster Ardern was praised for the way in which she communicated and for checking in with her citizens through Facebook Live.”

The take-away for business leaders: Without question, those company leaders who are taking the time to check in with their people regularly, to exhibit compassion and grace, and to show up in an authentic way are garnering employee commitment during this time.

But as the pandemic wears on, employees are also seeking action. So the more meaningful changes companies can put in place now in response to these conversations – as they relate to technology, financial, mental health, and work-life balance needs – the better companies will fare in maintaining their employees’ loyalty, commitment and productivity.

3.    They cultivate a “democratic and participative leadership style”

This trait is supported by UK journalist Victoria McClean, who’s analysis about women leaders during the crisis notes that, “Handling a global pandemic takes a certain skillset, balancing decisions about the right action to take (and when) while supporting and reassuring the general public. Whatever your gender, it means leading with courage and conviction – and not focusing on political or personal gain. It’s a readiness to ignore ego and align yourself with the general public, eschewing political prowess and popularity in favour of supporting your community, your country and the world as a whole. It’s showing solidarity yet being confident enough to lead the way and to make and implement tough decisions.”

“According to a fascinating article by Female Breadwinners, a study at a Canadian university revealed that female directors are more likely to probe and ask questions and challenge the status quo rather than nodding through decisions. It’s reflecting that same careful, considered approach that Angela Merkel favours.”

The take-away for business leaders: Leaders must continue listening to employee concerns, and seeking their input to help shape the future of their work. This includes consulting them on everything from strategic business direction to designing a COVID-friendly physical space, to career pathing, technology needs, and shifting total rewards to make them better suited for a remote-based work environment.

Today, we celebrate the leadership of Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-Wen, Mette Frederiksen, Erna Solberg, and others. It’s time for business leaders to pay attention to what these women are getting right, and how these lessons can help them engage with their people to move forward and create the future of work.

# # #


1.    Due to the “the massive underrepresentation of female-led countries in the sample,” (only 19 countries across the world are led by women, compared with the 174 in the sample that were male-led), the researchers conducted a “nearest-neighbor analysis,” which compared countries with similar demographics and economic characteristics as those led by women. Even after this adjustment, the study “clearly confirms that when women-led countries are compared to countries similar to them along a range of characteristics, they have performed better, experiencing fewer cases as well as fewer deaths.” Find the full methodology here.

Categories: Communication, Leadership