The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked the United States and has tragically led to thousands of deaths across the country. Additionally, COVID-19 has drastically affected the country’s economy and left many people without work. Several public officials have compared the nation’s fight with COVID-19 to a war. Clearly, there is a need for effective leadership during this crisis.
Previous research has examined gender differences in leadership effectiveness. Such research has revealed that female leadership is often preferred during a crisis. Other research has confirmed that female leadership is positively related to a firm’s performance. These studies often use financial indicators as determinants of effectiveness, but little research has yet to examine associations between female leadership and public welfare outcomes.
FEMALE LEADERSHIP DURING COVID-19
New research (Sergent & Stajkovic, 2020) examines if and why the gender of a state’s governor may be associated with that state’s amount of reported deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors argue that the female tendency to display more empathy and confidence compared to males may be associated with greater voluntary compliance of orders among followers, and in turn, fewer deaths.
To test these ideas, the authors used publicly available data to examine differences in the number of reported deaths among states with male or female governors prior to May 5, 2020. They found that there were fewer deaths in states with female governors compared to states with male governors. Furthermore, the authors found that in states where female governors issued stay-at-home orders before it was the norm to do so (prior to March 23, 2020), there were fewer deaths from COVID-19 compared to states where male governors gave the same early orders. These results were found even when controlling for several other relevant variables such as the amount of previous terms the governor served, if there was a state-wide mandate to wear face masks, and state population.
Additionally, the authors analyzed the transcripts of governors’ COVID-19 related briefings in order to uncover potential mechanisms driving these differences. They found that female governors’ briefings included a higher percentage of words conveying empathy and confidence compared to males.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results of this “natural leadership experiment” suggest that female leadership may be associated with better outcomes in times of crisis, since states with female governors experienced fewer COVID-19 deaths compared to states with male governors. Furthermore, states where female governors gave early stay-at-home orders had fewer deaths than states where male governors gave the same orders. These findings suggest that female leaders may be more effective at getting their followers to willingly comply with orders during a crisis, which ultimately can save lives. This may be due to female leaders’ greater focus on conveying empathy and confidence in their communication with followers.
These findings emphasize the importance of having females in leadership positions, especially during a crisis. This research also suggests that even in the absence of female leaders, organizations should seek and value individuals who exhibit empathy and confidence. The authors suggest that organizations can attempt to foster these characteristics by training employees or considering these characteristics when making selection decisions for leadership positions. This approach may result in better outcomes for organizations in times of uncertainty.
Sergent, K., & Stajkovic, A. D. (2020). Women’s leadership is associated with fewer deaths during the COVID-19 crisis: Quantitative and qualitative analyses of United States governors. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.