Ross Clark

Did female leaders trump men in dealing with the pandemic?

Did female leaders trump men in dealing with the pandemic?
Jacinda Ardern (Getty images)
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It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen if an academic produced a paper claiming that countries led by men were more entrepreneurial or are better at negotiating international deals. The sky would fall in on them before the ink was dry. Their paper wouldn’t find a mainstream journal to publish it, anyway, but the mere existence of the study would be enough to have them denounced by students and thrown out of their university.

But if you were to publish a study claiming that countries led by women have coped better with the Covid-19 pandemic, with fewer cases and fewer deaths than countries led my men? We know what would happen in this instance because two economists have just done it: Supriya Garikipati of Liverpool University and Uma Kambhampati of Reading University. Their study, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, tries to analyse the records of male-led countries against female-led ones and concludes that the latter came off better than the former.

The female-led countries, they claim, locked-down earlier: 'One explanation for gender-differences in the propensity to lock down early might be found in the literature on attitudes to risk and uncertainty, which suggests that women, even those in leadership roles, appear to be more risk-averse than men.'

Far from the world falling in on them, the two economists have been treated to a prominent news story in the Guardian, and been cited favourably on Twitter by all manner of feminist groups. There is a very simple rule to this sort of gender-based study: it is permissible when it presents women in a positive light, and absolutely forbidden when it does not.

But leaving that aside, is there any value in this research? The academics have done little more than simply compare death rates of the 19 nations they say are led by women with the 174 they say are led by men. They have attempted to pair countries with similar populations, GDP, demography and population density, and compared them directly. That produces some odd twins which makes you wonder, straight away, of the worth of the exercise: New Zealand has been twinned with Ireland, Serbia with Israel and Germany with the UK. It rather ignores the vastly different geographical position and climate of the countries being paired: New Zealand sits in the middle of the Southern Ocean, 1000 miles from any neighbour and with few people passing through; Ireland sits on the edge of Europe, which as a whole has been greatly affected by the pandemic. Moreover, the infection arrived in Ireland in winter, and New Zealand in summer.

The study also somewhat overlooks who is really in charge. The UK and Germany might seem a good socio-economic match at national level yet Germany has a federal structure. It hasn’t been Angela Merkel making most of the decisions on lockdown, but regional governments. If you wanted to prove the opposite point – that men have proved better leaders during the pandemic – I dare say you could do that by picking your pairings carefully, for example by putting female-led Belgium (859 deaths per million) together with male-led Netherlands (361 deaths per million).

What you have is a bunch of hugely disparate countries with very different geographies and political systems – factors which you cannot even begin to screen out in order to draw conclusions on the gender of their leaders. Moreover, to try to equate Jacinda Ardern with, say, Aung San Suu Kyi and imply that they think alike, and make judgements in a pandemic which are fundamentally different to those of, say, Boris Johnson or Vladimir Putin, is absurd. This is no piece of rigorous science, just a dollop of feminist propaganda.