Women in the big boys’ club

by June 9, 2020 0 comments

After their success in controlling the pandemic in countries led by them, the UN wants more women leaders on the talks table to fight the second wave

The pandemic has undoubtedly put the global leadership to the test. Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has appreciated some countries for demonstrating that “this virus can be suppressed and controlled.” Among them, quite a few are women-led nations. One such State, Taiwan, is located precariously close to the country of origin of the Coronavirus, yet it could restrict the number of cases to 441 and casualties to seven. Taiwan’s first woman President, Tsai Ing-Wen, keeping the SARS experience in mind, quickly insulated the country and instituted large-scale health screenings with the detection of the first case in the island nation. An academic-turned-politician, President Tsai, with an epidemiologist as Vice-President, steered through the crisis with an “extraordinary calmness and determination.” Not far off in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a few weeks back that “the newly-reported infections have reduced to single digits.” Jacinda has already earned applause for her sensitive handling of the Christ Church terror attacks. In the Corona-crisis her “hard work, earnestness in reaching out to the people, empathetic direct communication and openness to diverse views….” received many plaudits. She enforced “the strictest lockdown”, yet, when cautioned by experts about its “unintended consequences” she promptly allowed limited gatherings.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, a doctorate in quantum chemistry, has been described during the pandemic as her country’s “scientist in chief.” She handled the outbreak with her “characteristic rationality, coupled with an uncharacteristic sentimentality.” Merkel was the political leader, “who executed, celebrated and personified evidence-based thinking” which helped Germany achieve a “relatively successful battle against COVID-19” with a lesser mortality rate than many of its European neighbours. There are many more such women leaders who have been on top of things. Premier Katrín Jakobsdóttir created a world record by testing more than 13 per cent of the population of Iceland while Finnish Premier Sanna Marin declared a state of emergency, a first for the country. The Norwegian Premier, Erna Solberg, administered the “most far-reaching measures ever experienced in peacetime”, while the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, was the first in Europe to close the borders. Back home, Kerala’s Health Minister KK Shailaja, a physics teacher-turned-politician, who was acknowledged for her effective interventions in the Nipah outbreak earlier, was instrumental in evolving a “unique COVID-19 virus control protocol”, which the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) labelled, “as one of the best.”

Public health experts, epidemiologists, virologists, social scientists et al extolled these leaders for “prompt and decisive actions and making the best use of scientific interventions.” They have been applauded for their foresight, grit, composure, inclusiveness and humility. Undoubtedly, they acted differently in trying times. A noted US scholar commented that, “Women leaders brought in a fresh change in crisis management…disrupting the traditional image of leadership…” While another US academic opined that “women’s greater tendency towards participative, relational leadership….in contrast to men’s top-down, autocratic leadership helped them in the current crisis.” Many researchers also contended that the “21st century demands a new type of leadership…..as displayed by women politicians …different from the traditional command and control approach.” Professor Nisar-Ul Haq, Department of Political Science Jamia Milia University, also asserted that “women fare better in any crisis situation, even when they suffer the most like in a war or in a health crisis…. their resilience, solicitude, multi-tasking help them to cope.”

Some researchers, however, attributed their relative success to the “gender-equitable ecosystem in which they operated ….where qualities like empathy, compassion and collaboration in leadership are much recognised.” Some others also argued that women’s leadership is not a “monolith.” Many like Hong Kong Executive Carrie Lam drew flak for her COVID-19 management. So did Belgium’s head, for having the second-highest death rate in the world. While countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and Australia, who had done fine, are all led by men, many researchers also hold the view that each leader should be evaluated on his/her strengths and weaknesses and not on their gender.

Fair enough! But what is the existing global scenario? Women in political space are a minuscule minority, with less than seven per cent as world leaders, only around in 10 per cent countries, comprising just four per cent of the global population. In such a lopsided world of politics, leadership is often identified with “toxic masculinity” and “power” in negative gender stereotypes. Ravi Verma, Director of the International Center for Research on Women, Asia and member of the ICMR’s COVID-19 national task force, outrightly rejecting such typecasts, posited that “women leaders in the present pandemic proved all negative stereotypes wrong by acting with conviction, remaining better informed, making firm decisions and securing people’s trust.”

Now, the pandemic is yet to run its full course. The UN has urged upon the nations to have “women at the table” in meeting the looming challenges of “a second spike in infections, labour shortages and social unrest.” Isn’t it high time that nations pay heed to the call of power-sharing?

(Writer: Archana Datta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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