Learning from female leaders during the pandemic

We're always taught to learn from male leaders, what about the other way around?

Marie Blakesley, Principal Consultant, Leadership and Talent Consultancy at employment agency Gatenby Sanderson Ltd says learning from the actions of female leaders during the pandemic is key.

Whether the message is implied or explicit, women have long been told to learn from how men approach work. Yet women leaders have a stronger potential than men to demonstrate capability in the skills and behaviours linked to successful outcomes during and after a crisis like the pandemic.

It seems it’s high time to recognise that greater diversity in leadership benefits us all – and that there are more than a few pointers that men could be taking from women. Here’s what we can all learn from what global female leaders did over the pandemic period.

Learning from female leaders during the pandemic

In the early days of the first outbreak, it became apparent that countries led by women tended to handle the crisis better. Countries such as New Zealand, led by Jacinda Ardern, Germany by Angela Merkel and Taiwan by Tsai Ing-Wen, achieved better outcomes than countries led by men with a ‘strongman‘ approach such as Brazil, India and the USA.

To find out why this is the case, academics from Liverpool and Reading universities conducted research to understand whether female leadership styles played a role in achieving better outcomes during the pandemic. They found that even when cultural, socio-economic, health expenditure and geographic factors were considered, countries led by women had significantly fewer deaths (around 1,650 less on average) and cases than their closest similarly-sized neighbours.

Similarly, in the USA, studies have found fewer deaths in states run by female governors.

Women leaders – better communicators, more risk-averse?

Curious as to why this might be, the research team from Liverpool and Reading looked closely at the behaviour exhibited by women leaders compared with their male peers. They concluded that the better outcomes in countries led by women could be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy response they adopted. Women leaders were more sensitive to averting the risk of loss of life and showed clear, decisive, and empathetic communication throughout.

Our research backs this up. We mapped psychometric assessment data with proven predictors of behavioural excellence for leaders in the Public and Not for Profit Sectors for over 3,000 leaders. This enabled us to benchmark and compare the leadership capability of male and female applicants to senior public sector roles.

Our data indicate that women leaders statistically have significantly stronger potential than men to engender trust, be curious and agile, make relationships count, build team unity, promote collaboration, and futureproof talent.

The Gatenby Sanderson Altitude Model

The Altitude model outlines the areas which drive leadership excellence in the public sector and not-for-profit sector.

Skills critical to recovery from the pandemic

While it is certainly not ground-breaking or challenging any stereotypes to suggest that women are more likely to have strengths around relationships and interactions with others, these are the very skills that have become even more important during the pandemic and are likely to remain so.

In a world where hybrid-working is becoming the norm, effective leaders will be able to maintain teamwork, manage and oversee the work of staff working flexibly and remotely, and gain the trust of their workforce to get the best out of them in this new working environment.

The problems leaders face are so complex that they cannot be solved without collaborating outside their organisation. To illustrate this point, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a warning that vaccine nationalism by member states is leading to “catastrophic moral failure” – WHO cannot succeed without greater collaboration by member states. This raises the question about what impact female leaders might play in international collaboration for the good of global society compared to their male counterparts.

Technology and the opportunities advancements bring are moving so fast that leaders can’t rely on prior experience. They must be curious, agile and hungry to learn to keep pace with technology and new ways of working.

Organisations whose leaders can harness the value of diversity, encompassed in our Future proof talent competency, outperform those that can’t.

Women have a stronger predictive potential for all these competencies.

Gender balanced teams offer a better blend of skills

By contrast, our data show that men have a statistically significant stronger potential to lead in a confident and visible way that inspires others. Skills that may have been less directly linked to an immediate reduction in the spread of COVID-19 and loss of lives but are likely to become increasingly important as we move beyond the pandemic.

These are patterns and trends in gender differences. It would be reductive to suggest that an individual will conform to these patterns. Some men are particularly strong in the apparently ‘female’ strengths and vice versa; individual differences will, as ever, be greater than the overarching gender differences. However, the likelihood is that you will find a better blend of skills in a gender-balanced leadership team.

Beware the confidence gap

For organisations wanting to hire more women leaders, it’s worth remembering that women are more inclined to underestimate their capability and men to overestimate their skills.

Women and employers can take confidence that they are likely to possess a range of skills pertinent to the current context and challenges faced by leaders.

In one sense, we’ve been here before. During the last financial crisis, McKinsey surveyed 800 business leaders across the globe to understand the impact of women leaders on corporate performance. They found that certain leadership behaviours more frequently adopted by women are critical to safely navigate through a crisis and perform well through the recovery period. Despite this valuable insight, only a third of organisations viewed gender diversity as a priority. And not all managers recognised the positive impact of gender diversity on corporate performance.

Let’s learn from this crisis and redouble our efforts to create gender diverse leadership across our organisations.


Marie Blakesley is a Chartered Psychologist and Principal Consultant, Leadership & Talent Consultancy Team at GatenbySanderson. She is also Chair of the company’s Women’s Affinity Group.

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