♀️ Women leaders in a world of crisis: five things to know

Contemporary politics seems besieged by crises, from pandemics to wars to economic austerity. What does crisis mean for women leaders, who remain underrepresented as chief executives and legislators across the globe? Building on their research, Tiffany D. Barnes, Diana Z. O’Brien and Jennifer M. Piscopo identify five ways to ‘think crisis, think gender’

1. Emergency politics usually means men’s politics

Women remain underrepresented as chief executives and members of parliament. They head governments in fewer than 20 countries, and comprise only around a quarter of the world’s ministers and legislators.

Crises may marginalise women leaders. Governments declare ‘states of emergency’ to facilitate rapid decision-making, which concentrates executive authority. During the pandemic, for example, governments’ emergency powers allowed prime ministers to bypass parliaments and make decisions among closed circles of ministers and advisors. If women remain outside top leadership roles, they are likely excluded from such ‘war cabinets’.

Indeed, security crises may especially marginalise women leaders. Women are unlikely to be appointed as defence ministers during war, or to be named home affairs ministers after terror attacks.

Perceptions that crisis response requires technical, specialist knowledge further fuels women’s exclusion. The UK government held daily press briefings in the first two months of the Covid-19 pandemic. All but one were led by men ministers.

2. If women aren’t at the decision-making table, policy responses neglect crises’ gendered effects

Women’s absence from emergency decision-making is not just about numbers.

Crises exacerbate existing gender inequality. For instance, women worldwide are more likely than men to experience food and housing insecurity. Natural disasters that put livelihoods at risk thus hit women harder than men. During the pandemic, women suffered disproportionate job losses. Rates of gender-based violence soared so high that activists spoke of the ‘shadow pandemic’.

Crises’ gendered effects are often compounding. Financial crises, for example, do not just affect women’s employment, but lead to higher levels of maternal mortality and lower levels of women’s enrolment in university education. Yet just 8% of countries’ Covid economic recovery plans mentioned a key factor shaping women’s workforce participation and mental health: access to childcare.

When governments named women to their Covid-19 task forces, their policy responses were more likely to address gender inequalities

When women are included, however, this pattern changes. The more governments named women to their Covid-19 task forces, the more likely their policy responses addressed gender inequalities. This result follows decades of research showing a link between women’s presence and women’s policy representation: the more women in decision-making, the more outcomes respond to and seek to mitigate gender inequality.

3. Crises tap into different ideas about feminine and masculine leadership

The type of crisis may affect women’s access to, tenure in, and exit from political leadership. Many crises seem ‘masculine’: they call for leadership qualities like strength and decisiveness, qualities traditionally associated with men. When a terror attack occurs, for instance, women chief executives do not benefit from the same ‘rally around the flag’ effect that buoys men leaders.

Yet some crises may activate gender stereotypes that paint women as more honest, transparent, and trustworthy, generating calls for women to come to the rescue or to clean up the mess. Finance ministries have long been the preserve of men, but economic crises create opportunities for women to become finance ministers. Women are also significantly more likely to serve in this portfolio following a spike in corruption. When voter distrust in political institutions is high, parties run more women candidates.

Some crises activate gender stereotypes that paint women as more honest and trustworthy, generating calls for women to 'come to the rescue'

The Covid-19 pandemic also fuelled a demand for women leaders. In the first months of the crisis, newspaper accounts worldwide reported that women chief executives excelled at pandemic management relative to men.

Though later academic investigations found little empirical support for the relationship, the narrative’s popularity further underscored ideas about women leaders as ‘saviours’. And since a public health emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic calls for compassion and calm, women’s leadership during it seemed especially congruent.

4. Women leaders can shape how voters understand the crisis

The link between crisis type and gender role congruity is not automatic, however. In their communication, political leaders frame the crisis for citizens, modelling the kinds of emotions and traits needed in the moment.

Savvy leaders will therefore bring voters’ interpretations of the crisis in line with their perceived strengths. In response to the white supremacist terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern emphasised empathy and community healing, rather than vengeance and justice. Her compassionate press conferences during the pandemic built upon this well-received leadership style.

In contrast, longstanding German Chancellor Angela Merkel was best known for her directness and pragmatism. She quelled moral panic over refugee arrivals with a calmly reassuring ‘we’ll manage this’, and earned the nickname ‘scientist and chief’ for her emphasis on facts during the pandemic. Different women, then, can develop different leadership styles that are equally well-received during crises.

5. Crises create policy ruptures that benefit women’s rights

Scholars often describe crises as critical junctures, dramatic moments that puncture the status quo and reveal opportunities for political change.

Post-crisis reforms open new ways for women to participate in political and economic life. Women's suffrage expanded after WWI and again after WWII, and contemporary civil wars have generated dramatic increases in women’s legislative representation. Canada’s decision to adopt a universal, federal early learning and childcare programme in the wake of the Covid pandemic means more women in the workforce, including in political careers.

Heralding women leaders as saviours imposes unrealistic expectations on them, demanding that they be simultaneously different from and better than their male counterparts

Yet relying on crises to propel women leaders and women’s rights forward is far from ideal. Crises cause tragedy and suffering. Heralding women as saviours – of the economy, the climate, or even democracy itself – imposes unrealistic expectations on female leaders, demanding that they be simultaneously different from and better than their male counterparts.

Voters and politicians must pursue parallel solutions, addressing immediate emergencies alongside ending women’s systemic underrepresentation in politics and policy-making. With half the population still missing from political decision-making, countries are unlikely to develop effective, sustainable responses to the crises that increasingly dominate the present moment.

Think crisis, think gender.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Tiffany D. Barnes Tiffany D. Barnes Professor of Political Science, University of Kentucky More by this author
photograph of Diana Z. O'Brien Diana Z. O'Brien Bela Kornitzer Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St Louis More by this author
photograph of Jennifer M. Piscopo Jennifer M. Piscopo Professor of Politics and Gender, Royal Holloway University of London / Co-Editor, European Journal of Politics and Gender More by this author

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