The coronavirus disease that emerged in 2019 (COVID-19) spotlights the need for effective leadership in a crisis. COVID-19 was an exogenous shock that dramatically affected individuals, organizations, and societies. Together with my co-author, Kayla Sergent (PhD ‘18) of Edgewood College, we used this life-and-death pandemic to examine a growing question in the literature—whether women are more effective leaders than men in a crisis. We focused on United States governors for they face extraordinary leadership trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To preview our conclusions, we found the following:
- Women’s leadership is associated with fewer COVID-19 deaths
- Women leaders express more empathy by relating to followers’ feelings and concerns
- Women leaders express more confidence in a brighter future
States with women governors had fewer COVID-19 related deaths compared to states with male governors. In addition, there was a significant interaction between governor gender and issuance of an early stay-at-home order: states with women governors who issued an early stay-at-home order had fewer COVID-19 deaths compared to states with men governors who issued the same order.
This suggests that residents might have responded to early orders from women with greater volitional compliance than to orders by men, ultimately saving lives.
Theoretically, leadership literature in applied psychology suggests that women tend to be preferred over men as leaders during uncertain times. This is because, in comparison to men, women have a greater desire to help others, more capacity to balance risk, and higher resilience to “bounce back” from failure pragmatically.
Based on this growing literature, we investigated the following question: Do states in the U.S. with women governors have fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with men governors? And if so, why?
Understanding leadership differences in a crisis
Why did we theoretically expect there might be differences?
First, women tend to be preferred for leadership positions across professions in times characterized by uncertainty because these situations require curvilinear thinking, such as relying more on creativity, improvisation, and intuition. These are qualities that research shows women tend to exhibit more of than men.
Second, leaders face unfamiliar dilemmas in a crisis. This underscores the importance of a leader’s ability to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing across teams with diverse skills. Research has shown that women tend to have a democratic leadership style, whereas men tend to have a more autocratic leadership style. Therefore, women leaders are more likely to encourage information sharing and brainstorming, increasing the probably of consensus building. Together, these qualities can improve the effectiveness of the leaders’ decision-making.
Third, successful leaders show awareness of their followers’ feelings and acknowledge the emotional challenges they face. Doing this effectively requires empathy. Empathy is defined as an emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of others. In this way, showing empathy involves imagining how others are affected by the situation at hand. Research on gender and empathy has shown that women tend to be more empathetic toward others than men.
Finally, in crises characterized by high levels of uncertainty and risk, mistakes are likely. Thus, leaders need confidence to make course corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the operations with doubt. Research has shown that women are less likely than men to take mistakes and failure personally, increasing their ability to maintain confidence in the midst of obstacles. For this reason, women are more likely than men to exude confidence in a crisis.
Examining the data
To test our research question, we used publicly available data on COVID-19 deaths by state. We also included variables to control for state population, governors’ gender and other sociodemographic variables, along with important COVID-19 related actions, such as state issuance of stay-at-home orders, face mask mandates, bans on travel, and ventilator sharing. By including these relevant covariates, we were able to determine if governor’s gender predicted unique variance in COVID-19 deaths above and beyond other related variables.
To investigate why this might be, we next analyzed over 250 of the governors’ COVID-19 related briefings (about 1.2 million words). Compared to men governors, we found that women governors displayed greater empathy by relating to their followers’ feelings and concerns and expressed more confidence to get through the crisis.
Takeaways for leadership during a crisis
What does this mean for effective leadership in times of crisis?
First, these findings underscore the need to value different leadership voices and to build a culture of inclusion in which varied voices are heard and valued.
In the absence of women governors or women organizational leaders during a crisis, effort can be put forth to diversify leadership teams with individuals who show empathy and confidence.
Empathy drives a tone of communication that is tactful and gentle, making it more effective for delivering emotionally laden speeches in a time of crisis. Because men tend to be less empathetic, their communication with followers is often more blunt, dominant, and forceful.
Confidence, like empathy, can translate to differences in communication patterns. For example, men seem to communicate confidence by commanding attention and winning arguments, with an aim to gain power. In contrast, women tend to be more sensitive in exuding confidence to their followers by focusing on immediately relevant issues, not power.
In organizations, these attributes could be enhanced with training or selected during hiring. That is, social roles and social cognition are mediated by psychosocial processes. For this reason, men can also exhibit traditionally feminine qualities because gender roles emerge from an individual’s activities throughout role development. Therefore, the qualities we found to be associated with women’s leadership could be trained for improvement for any type of leader.
Implementing a training program to unobtrusively change gendered stereotypes at a societal level is easier said than done. For example, research on subtle forms of prejudice (see Sergent and Stajkovic, 2019 for a review) suggests that simply discussing gender issues increases the salience of gender prejudice. Thus, constructive conversations are needed to sift through ways in which pre-conceived views about gender and leadership effectiveness stereotypes can be updated.
Read the paper: “Women’s Leadership Is Associated with Fewer Deaths During the COVID-19 Crisis: Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses of United States Governors,” (PDF) published in Journal of Applied Psychology.
Alex Stajkovic is the M. Keith Weikel Distinguished Chair in Leadership and an associate professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business.