Psychological arguments can and should be made for why women make exceptional leaders. Studies prove that women consistently rank higher than men in most management skills. Research also suggests that women-led companies make more money than their male-run competitors and are more productive.
But there’s a stronger argument to why women’s leadership is so important right now: Coronavirus, like all global health crises, is also a women’s crisis. While early signals suggest men are at higher risk of dying from this pandemic, women are disproportionately affected by its societal implications, and without our leadership, no health-care or policy solution will be representative. And, when health-care and policy solutions are not representative, they fail.
Worldwide, women comprise the majority (nearly 70 percent, by some estimates) of frontline health-care workers; in the US, that figure is nearly 80 percent. In China’s Hubei province where the virus originated, 90 percent of health-care workers and nearly half of doctors are women. Women are primary caregivers for children and the elderly worldwide, especially when they’re sick.
Women are significantly less likely to hold executive and senior management roles, making us more likely to be impacted by layoffs. Data already suggest that we are being hit hardest by COVID-19 staff reductions. Women also comprise the world’s majority of informal workers and are more likely to sacrifice their jobs (either voluntarily or by force) should one partner in a couple need to stay home.
Less discussed is women’s susceptibility to abuse during times of crisis. Data already suggest that domestic violence is spiking as nations lockdown, a danger amplified by closed shelters and overwhelmed hotlines.
In this highly uncertain time, empathy is one of the few things leaders can control. When we feel for others, our blinders fade, we welcome diverse perspectives, and we are able to make informed decisions rather than operating in silos. Empathy is intellect, and women have it in spades.
Women are the world’s frontline defense and at-home support. We are over half of the world’s population. This virus does not discriminate, and every nation’s economy and medical health rests on our paid and unpaid labor. When our needs are not represented and acted upon, everyone loses. When the White House coronavirus task forces look like this, women have no reason to trust that our needs are being heard or acted upon. While women’s representation in leadership does not guarantee we will be respected, countries like Sweden suggest it dramatically increases the chances.
At the heart of this macro explanation is a single trait underscoring women’s unique qualification to lead: empathy. Defined as the ability to understand or share another person’s feelings, empathy is exactly why representation in leadership matters—especially in times of crisis.
When employees feel seen and supported by their managers, they’re twice as likely to be productive and satisfied by their jobs. When you know the struggle of working from home while quarantining with kids, you can craft policies that actually support working parents. When your family relies on you to bathe, feed, and medicate your elderly parents, you don’t question colleagues who need to sign off early for “family stuff.” And when you’ve experienced the immense anxiety of being pregnant before a pandemic, you remember to regularly check in on your colleague who’s in her third trimester.
From childhood on, women are socialized to be more empathetic than men. To succeed, we need to overcome different and more difficult challenges. Once we secure leadership, it’s impossible to forget our scars or the women whose support enabled our success. We lead for them because, in many ways, we are them. Our empathy empowers our teams to do more, focus, and stay committed.
Empathy is the antonym of ego, and without it, decisions cannot be made for the greater good. In this highly uncertain time, empathy is one of the few things leaders can control. When we feel for others, our blinders fade, we welcome diverse perspectives, and we are able to make informed decisions rather than operating in silos. Empathy is intellect, and women have it in spades.
Whether considering the tragic predicament of coronavirus from the macro perspective of a global health crisis or the micro perspective of an anxious corporate team, women’s leadership is essential for success. This virus will wreak havoc worldwide, and while it demands a diverse array of leaders, we cannot confront it without women at the table.