Do sex differences in the highest echelons of leadership matter?

Do sex differences in the highest echelons of leadership matter, especially during a pandemic? This is the question Prof Soraya Seedat from the Department of Psychiatry tried to answer in a recent Women's Month article for News24.

Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Soraya Seedat

Do sex differences in the highest echelons of leadership matter?

I've been pondering this question ever since the current pandemic has brought leadership and more specifically sex-differentiated political leadership and decision-making into sharp focus. Since we're celebrating Women's Month, I thought it would be an ideal time to take a closer look at this issue.

study conducted early in the pandemic on the relationship between the sex of political leaders and the nature of their countries' response to the pandemic reported that female leaders, on average, reacted more quickly and decisively than male leaders and implemented measures in their countries with resultant lower mortality rates from COVID-19. For example, prominent female leaders Angela Merkel of Germany and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand were ably steering their countries through the initial few weeks of the pandemic with less loss of life than many of their male counterparts. These findings held up even after taking other key parameters into account in the analysis – parameters such as per capita GDP (gross domestic product), population size, urbanisation, population over the age of 65, annual health expenditure per capita, number of tourists entering the country, and gender equality. A second study across 159 countries showed similar trends when comparing female- and male-led countries, with countries led by women having the edge on public health metrics that indicated control of the spread of COVID-19.

What could be giving rise to these different leadership styles between the sexes?

Well, in addition to widely documented stereotypes and perceptions in male-female leadership styles (women show more communal behaviours and men show more agentic behaviour), there are biological and psychological differences that may help explain the cross-country differences in pandemic leadership and disease outcomes.

First, female-male attitudes to risk-taking differ. Women show a greater propensity for minimising risk (that is, they tend to be more risk-averse) – an important consideration during a pandemic that has seen suffering and death on a colossal scale – compared to men who have a greater preference for taking risks and future gambles. For women leaders, therefore, there may be more salience in averting health-related risks and reducing loss of life, while for men leaders there may have been more salience in implementing short-term riskier decisions and minimising economic disruptions.

Second, the pandemic has been a persistent source of high stress and there is good evidence from both animal and human research that psychophysiological and behavioural responses to high levels of stress differ by sex. Women, in the face of highly stressful situations, are more likely to display co-operative and care-oriented behaviours in contrast to men who are more likely to display competitive and 'fight or flight' types of behaviour.

Third, there is some differentiation by sex in health behaviours, and more specific to this pandemic the emotional response to the pathogenic threat of SARS-CoV-2. Research studies in the general population during the pandemic have indicated more concern among women than men regarding their own health and the health of others, with women 1.5 times more likely than men to wear a mask and also more likely to view COVID-19 as a serious health problem. This mirrors behaviours in previous pandemics where women were 50% more likely than men to practice and/or increase non-pharmaceutical health-protective behaviours. Women also exhibit higher levels of 'pathogen disgust' – displaying stronger emotions of disgust in relation to contamination and infection than men do. One could therefore argue that greater health concerns among women and higher negative responses to pathogens may influence the decisions women leaders make at the highest level. 

Fourth, there are a number of personality differences between men and women that may influence leadership behaviour. Men leaders are more likely to 'systematize' and to employ rule-based systems of leading, while women leaders are more likely to employ more collaborative strategies and to 'empathize' with others. Empathy is the capacity to recognise and understand the mental state of others and to respond with compassion.

All of these factors may be playing a role in health-related decision-making and judgement at the highest levels of leadership. 

Alongside these differences, words uttered by leaders throughout the pandemic have mattered and continue to matter. Communication and language style, rhetoric, and message framing from political leaders have been central to shaping public trust, adherence (or lack thereof) to public health measures, and vaccination uptake. If we consider speeches (e.g., national addresses, official statements) made by heads of governments around the world during the pandemic, what does emerge is a notable difference in communication style by sex.

Though both women and men heads of government have emphasised the economic impact of the pandemic, women heads of government have, compared to their male counterparts, focused on the individual- and family-level impacts of COVID-19 and have further highlighted the negative influence on vulnerable groups (mentally ill, substance users, refugees, etc.), family care responsibilities and domestic violence.4 Besides, men leaders have universally tended to use more 'war' rhetoric while women leaders have made more empathetic and personal appeals centred on compassion and social cohesion.

These differences do, of course, need to be taken in context. Differences between the sexes do not preclude within-sex differences (individual variations in women and men).

Cross-country variation in the time course of the pandemic, population demographics, societal norms and expectations, and socio-economic, political and cultural factors, may also be contributory. It has also been argued that the majority of the countries led by women presidents or prime ministers are in the Global North (nine in the Global North vs. three in the Global South), obscuring the fact that countries in this part of the world led by women are “wealthy, liberal democracies with high state capacity and therefore good governance" – conditions that provide fertile ground for the implementation of effective pandemic responses by the leaders of those countries.

Even so, sex differences in leadership that have been noted during the pandemic deserve further scientific exploration. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.    

*Professor Soraya Seedat is the Executive Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University.


Soraya Seedat