There is a meme that’s been doing the rounds as the impact of Coronavirus starts to really be felt in countries across the world, a meme which has sparked a raft of articles unpicking the message at its core: why is it that almost all of the most successful leaders in the face of this global pandemic are female?
It’s proving an uncomfortable observation for people to get their heads round. Some (mostly men) dismiss it out of hand as sexist. Some (mostly women) unpick that further and analyse the danger of attributing certain characteristics to either gender in the ongoing fight for equality. Both look for other ways of explaining away the stand out nature of these countries’ responses, but by doing so I believe they are missing something fundamental: that in this impressive and inspiring leadership (and the contrasting efforts of some dominant male-led nation states) we are seeing the foregrounding of qualities which are overwhelmingly associated with women, and with that the start of the collapse of the patriarchal system.
I say ‘the start’ in full knowledge that this has been coming for a long while now, and also that in a whole raft of ways any shift away from the patriarchy is only in its infancy. But for the first time in my consciousness this lamenting of the inadequacies of the global elite is accompanied by concrete examples of alternative approaches which are genuinely working: not just in one outlier state but in countries across the world.
Before I explore that further I just want to take a moment to elucidate the lens I’m looking at all this through, one which has exposed for me the unsustainable gremlin at the heart of patriarchal society and has crystallised just how different a proposal the matriarchy can offer.
In her book ‘Societies of Peace’, Heide Goettner-Abendroth, a philosopher and anthropological researcher, analyses the deep structure of matriarchal society, focusing particularly on the need to reclaim the term ‘matriarchy’ from a male-biased world which seeks to define it as ‘rule by women’ in direct parallel to ‘patriarchy’.
Her definition puts the focus on ‘beginnings’ rather than ‘domination’ – both meanings of the Greek ‘arch’ – and sees the capacity of women for motherhood as a fundamental game changer in their approach to being in the world.
She argues that the ability of women to birth life (whether or not they choose to do so), creating it effectively out of nothing, is a circle that men have never been able to square – leading to a global patriarchal society based around dominance and war, and a concerted attempt to find parity with women by creating something out of nothing themselves.
In modern society, Goettner-Abendroth explains, this takes the form of capitalism – the constant striving to be bigger and better, and the myth that not only is this continuous growth possible but that the pursuit of that dream will somehow make us happier.
In that myth the lowest common denominator are those who do not financially contribute to economic growth, including those who (for example) shoulder the one trillion pounds worth of unpaid domestic labour in the UK each year, and care work in general is regarded with disdain.
Already in these early months of dealing with a global pandemic that particular aspect of the patriarchal capitalist myth has been blown out of the water, but it is not the only part of it that has been shown to be built on very shaky ground.
There is a misconception that by striving for a matriarchy over a patriarchy you would just be seeking to reverse the dominant gender – giving the power to women over men. But actually looking to matriarchal societies around the world what emerges is something very different.
Throughout history and across different cultures, matriarchies have been overwhelmingly peaceful societies, economically-balanced, egalitarian in the relationship between the sexes and between generations, and consensus-based in their politics.
I don’t think there is any coincidence that it is exactly these characteristics that are beginning to emerge in the response of female world leaders to the crisis the human race is currently facing.
One of the stand out features of the leadership style of women leading countries through this crisis is the empathy that drives them – both in the decisions that they make and in the way in which they communicate with their people.
Take Jacinda Arden, for example, who has attracted much interest and acclaim for the decisive and effective way she has curbed the spread of Coronavirus in New Zealand. Lockdown in New Zealand came early – as it did under Mette Frederiksen in Denmark and Sanna Marin in Finland. This decision openly prioritised the health of the people over short term economic growth, never calling into question the equal worth of the elderly and vulnerable who are the most at risk. The result in all three countries has been a much lower initial death rate than has been seen elsewhere, with tentative steps now being taken to ease controls and get people back to work. It is ironic really that such a ‘people first’ attitude looks also to be having a much kinder impact on the economy than the belated lockdown measures enforced elsewhere.
The UK’s desperate attempt to cling onto ‘business as usual’ whilst Coronavirus spread has already cost us dearly in terms of a horrifically high death rate and looks set, with no sign of lockdown easing soon, to have a disproportionately devastating effect on people’s livelihood and the economy as a whole.
Perhaps even more striking though than the decisions that have been taken by Arden is the way in which she has communicated these. She has regularly used Facebook Live to speak to the public, a relatable and reassuring figure in a time of deep anxiety for many. There is no bluster, no ceremony – just a mother who has tucked her child up in bed before checking in with the other people in her care.
This relatability is something else she has had in common with Frederiksen, who posted a video of her doing the washing up with her daughter to connect with other Danes in isolation. and has seen her approval ratings soar to 80% during the past couple of months.
Even Angela Merkel, who has always shied away from feminism and whose leadership style in her long political career has generally been much more in line with her male colleagues on the global stage, has been praised for her ‘thoughtfulness and ability to reassure’ as she has navigated the impact of Coronavirus.
This caring and empathetic approach has been combined in all of these countries with a fundamental respect for the advice of experts, and the courage to not shy away from the truth.
From the earliest days of this crisis both Merkel and Arden were not afraid to share the enormity of what their country was facing. There was no need to save face or to bluster through the stark reality of what might lie ahead.
Merkel’s extensive testing programme has been an important aspect of that, and has made Germany a significant outlier in Europe in terms of its effectiveness so far in containing the spread of Coronavirus. I say so far because even with this early success Merkel is one of the first to admit that we are only at the beginning of this crisis, a crisis that she warns we will have to live with for a long time.
Contrast this with Boris Johnson who, as people began to clamour for stronger controls within the UK, publicly boasted about shaking hands with hospitalised patients – only weeks before he was to end up in intensive care himself having contracted the virus. His government’s handling of this outbreak has been a game of smoke and mirrors which has consistently put peoples’ lives at risk, a game shockingly detailed in this week’s episode of Panorama.
Donald Trump too has been keen to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic for fear of damaging the markets – through press conferences and his infamous Twitter account he has led a campaign of misinformation that has made it impossible for Americans to know who to trust.
There is a sense that these leaders, steeped in generations of patriarchal posturing, cannot bear to be seen as weak or at risk or giving in. The more they paper over the cracks emerging in the societies they preside over the less they need to admit that things are spiralling beyond their control.
Meanwhile in Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s team classified Social Media influencers as critical operators during the Coronavirus crisis, working with them to disseminate information to people who might not access traditional media and, crucially, stem the spread of fake news. The result of this has been that people trust not only the information they are getting but also the government that is asking them to make such large sacrifices for the good of society.
This trust is something that New Zealanders have in droves for Arden too, and it has been reinforced by the decision for her and her government to take a 20% pay cut in recognition of the economic challenges facing the country, a solidarity boosting move in line with Arden’s demotion and public dressing down of her Health Minister after he breached lockdown rules.
There is no hierarchy in operation here, no elite who get to bend the regulations to suit them. Again it is impossible not to draw comparisons with the UK, where MPs were awarded £10,000 each in additional expenses to cover the costs of working from home, and Johnson recuperated at his country retreat after picking up his girlfriend en route after his release from hospital.
In fact in the egalitarian approach favoured by female leaders there is a real emphasis on connecting with all sectors of society – including children, who are all too often completely excluded from national politics, even where they are at the centre of the decisions being made.
Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, joined Frederiksen and Arden in holding a press conference specifically for children. For half an hour she answered questions submitted by the nation’s youth, demonstrating empathy in droves as she attempted to assuage their fears whilst not shying away from some of the more serious aspects of the crisis.
Her responses were not patronising, but they did recognise the need for children to embrace the play and magic of childhood whatever else is going on in the world – just as Arden did with her special announcement regarding an exemption from lockdown for the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
I should note, too, that Canada’s Justin Trudeau also addressed children directly in a broadcast early on in the crisis – a message which quickly went viral after it inspired a lego animation. His approach as a leader has arguably been significantly more empathetic in general than many of his male counterparts in other countries – and interestingly Canada’s death rate currently places them in a very favourable light.
This is worth noting because of course the qualities that the female leaders I have singled out embody are not ones which are solely the preserve of women – but they are at odds with the methods employed by the traditional patriarchy, and that is where my interest lies, particularly given the many thousands of lives these methods appear to have saved.
Only time will tell whether these early successes translate into sustained positive management of the threat posed by this virus, but however the figures pan out there is huge value in what has been revealed about these women in positions of huge power at a time of global emergency.
They are honest, they are decisive, they are caring, they are egalitarian, they are humble, they are empathetic, they are cooperative: and they are effective.
As we begin to look at what lies beyond this current crisis, at how we can embrace this troubling time as a catalyst for change in a world which desperately needs it, the models of leadership demonstrated by these stateswomen should give us much food for thought.
We need to remind ourselves that the issue of female representation in politics is not just about fairness or equality: it is about embracing a breadth of different approaches to leading our nations forward.
And as we eventually begin to rebuild our communities we need to do so in a way that fully embraces the potential of all women to play an active role in constructing a better world – not just the ones who are willing to play by the rules of the patriarchy.