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This is a wonderful new piece of research by Dr. Supriya Garikipati and Dr. Uma Kambhampati, that shows there really is scientific evidence behind the popular internet memes that women leaders have been doing a better job than their male counterparts in dealing with the pandemic.

(I highly recommend you read the full research report Women leaders are better fighting a pandemic. )

I read this research as a call for diverse styles of leadership. The context we live in today is highly complex, and the problems we face increasingly so. As such the best leadership style is usually one that has the fewest blind spots. This way of leading necessarily means the ability to source and use a diverse set of skills, perspectives and styles. Even though this research clearly shows a better outcome for countries led by women during the pandemic, I hope the message that we need more diversity in styles of leadership in general is not lost.

In reading the findings of this fascinating research, a couple of caveats are important to keep in mind. First, it is still early days in the pandemic life cycle; and second, we can only really measure one type of impact at this juncture - lives saved or lost. The economic impact will need to play out over time.

Two main findings in their research:

There are clear gender differences in risk taking behavior. Many earlier studies have reported more risk-averse behavior in women compared to men. However, what’s new here is that women leaders are selective in their risk approach. The women leaders studied chose to take less risks when it came to human lives, while being ok with taking more risks with the economy. And what that looked like is this - swift decision to lockdown in order to prioritize safety, while being ok with the possible unknown impact of such actions on the economy.

The researchers compared the women-led countries with peer countries (countries matched by similar population, average age, GDP, health expenditure, etc.) and the data show that the peer countries with male national leaders waited much longer to order a lockdown. Possibly using that time to weigh the severity of losses on both sides – human lives vs economy.

Interestingly, even though it is generally believed that women are more risk-averse than men, several studies show that the reverse is true when it comes to money! Men display much more risk-averse behavior than women when they have to make decisions in situations that are framed to highlight financial losses. (Schubert et al. 1999, Moore and Eckel 2006).

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The other finding in Kambhampati & Garikipati’s research confirms what has been much discussed - which is that women leaders during Covid tended to be clearer and more empathetic in their communication.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this –

What if in the longer term, data shows that countries with women national leaders who took a more aggressive stance on Covid (locked down early), actually resulted in greater (or longer lasting) negative economical impact compared to the less aggressive actions of their peer male-led countries, BUT they saved more lives. What then? How will we judge their actions?

Although my personal assessment is that the economic result of clear and decisive early lockdown will be positive. Early lockdown means you get to “no new cases sooner” which means business and schools can re-open sooner. As already evident in New Zealand, which is the first country where life is essentially back to normal.

But just for argument sake – let’s say, longer term, we see more negative impact on the economy in countries with women national leaders who took an aggressive stance and locked down early, compared to the economies of their peer male-led countries. What would we conclude? How will we judge their actions? Will we do some slick calculus to weigh number of lives saved vs rate of inflation/deflation? Will we revert to the classical economic argument that the value of a person is measured in the goods/services they produce that can be exchanged for money and that the sum of that is the GDP (aka worth of a nation)? Will we continue to maintain that the value of any service or experience is only equal to the amount that we’ve been paying for them, i.e., low paid jobs such as childcare, teachers, community organizers, companioning and support for the elderly or others in need are of low economic value, while high paying jobs such as lawyers, investment traders, and business leaders are of high economic value? Will we then downgrade the achievements of these women leaders because even though they saved more lives, they slowed down the economy? Or will we be wise and bold enough to challenge our outdated assumptions and consider a different model for building a thriving society.

My hope is regardless of what the longer term data will show about the economic impact of lockdown, we will come to realize that we, humans, created the economy - which is an artifact, nothing more than a bunch of people behaving according to some agreed norms of what has value and what does not. If we were able to do that, then surely, we are able to create a new version that corrects the gross imbalances and optimizes new insights and values we now have. (There is a Forbes article about this research but it didn't focus on this central question of the potential to transform the way we think of the economy and value.)

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