This piece was written by Susan Sloan and originally published on the Medium and updated for Meridian. Susan Sloan is a Meridian Council leader and author of A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World — an Amazon #1 New Release. For more information about the book, visit susansloan.com. Follow her on Twitter @realSusanSloan.
If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s that leadership matters. The staggering spread of the virus hit the U.S., Italy, Spain, and dozens of nations. Yet, others managed to alter the pandemic’s trajectory significantly. While many factors are at play, it is apparent that women in leadership positions are changing the course of COVID-19 in their countries.
As the coronavirus started making international headlines, I was wrapping up the final interview for my book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World with the Washington, D.C. based Ambassador from St. Kitts and Nives, Dr. Thelma Phillip-Browne. She shared, “Sometimes things like the viruses come to remind us that it doesn’t matter where we are born, what color we are, or the religious beliefs we have. It’s an equalizer. We need to pull together the same kind of energy for saving or sustaining our common humanity.”
This virus is an equalizer. From Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to my friend’s grandmother — it doesn’t matter who you are. What matters is leadership, and how we combat it.
Look at New Zealand: its death rate was far lower than America’s with only 22 deaths. In fact, the country eradicated the virus within its own population albeit foreigners bringing it into the country when traveling. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Meridian alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Exchange Program (IVLP), New Zealand’s management of the crisis was planful, compassionate and collaborative. These characteristics of women in leadership are no surprise to me.
Ardern implemented a pragmatic, step-by-step plan towards a nation-wide lockdown, modeled social distancing by speaking to citizens directly from her home on Facebook, and used the language of “we” and “us” to denote that the efforts of the country are collective.
Other nations led by women — Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Taiwan — also displayed these crisis management attributes.
Through interviewing more than 30 women ambassadors, foreign ministers, and government officials from around the world, I found that striving for gender parity at all levels of decision-making creates a real difference. We can see it in the private sector as well. Foreign Policy Analytics reports that companies with the highest percentage of women in management are 47 percent more profitable than those with the lowest.
Women are natural coalition and consensus builders. When I spoke with Hungary’s first woman Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Réka Szemerkényi, she said, “Women have a more natural talent for approaching conflict compared to men, but a combination of men and women is hugely important.”
Many of the women I interviewed shared intimate stories of how they build consensus, leading to beneficial results for international challenges — from peace treaties to security. Now, a pandemic falls under the results category too.
For example, retired U.S. Army Major General Linda Singh is no stranger to a crisis. She held the role of Commander of the Maryland National Guard and senior advisor to the Governor of Maryland during the 2015 Baltimore protests and civil disturbances. She told me, “Just having my voice in the room with some of the males around me allowed me to bring a very different perspective.”
Ardern and New Zealand’s government are using a similar approach by giving citizens a unified purpose of joining together to combat COVID-19. The leadership trait of a team-oriented approach, galvanizing society into a collective mindset, is especially helpful as the majority of citizens have been isolated at home.
Women leaders are bringing different mindsets to combat this pandemic, and the results are proven through lower cases and death rates. When the history of the crisis is written, we will most likely learn that nations with higher levels of gender parity fare better.
Only women and men working together to make effective decisions can carry us through this and future crises. We are seeing in real-time why leadership matters and why more women are needed at the highest levels. It’s not about winning. It’s about leading.