What Can We Learn from Female World Leaders?

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Writing for Forbes, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox says that the female leaders of Iceland, Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark had the best responses to COVID-19. She says that these female leaders can teach us something that male leaders can’t. There are four lessons she calls out, and I think you’ll agree that all of these are unique to women, and women only: truth, decisiveness, tech, and love. Indeed, that is what little girls are made of. Sorry boys, only our half of the population gets love. You can have another emotion, like, I don’t know, schadenfreude.

Wittenberg-Cox points out that Germany’s female leader displayed “truth” by admitting publicly that the virus was “serious” and would infect up to 70% of the population. I mean, okay? There were other nations helmed by men who lied and obfuscated, notably China and the United States, but those seem to be the outliers. I think pretty much everybody who isn’t an idiot fascist was openly saying “oh shit.”

Wittenberg-Cox next says that “decisiveness” is illustrated with Taiwan, who she says acted early. Taiwan actually suffered a bit because they failed to ban mass gatherings or restrict travel to and from Wuhan as Singapore did. They did manage to get their shit together, but there was a delay so I’m not positive why this was considered decisive while, say, South Korea isn’t. South Korea was hit by a religious cult passing the disease around with the collection plate, but they jumped on it so quickly with extensive testing that they flattened the curve before most countries outside Asia had decided whether or not to start hoarding toilet paper. But, South Korea’s prime minister is a man, sadly, so let’s just forget they exist.

Speaking of South Korea, Wittenberg-Cox points out that Iceland’s female leader demonstrated “tech” by testing five times more people than them. That’s true: Iceland is testing loads of people, and that’s great. However, they can’t test everyone — there aren’t enough tests or personnel to run those tests sooner than a year out. So while the extensive testing has helped possibly flatten their curve, some experts are still critical of them for not closing schools or stopping tourists from entering the country, and for taking until the end of March to ban social gatherings.

Note that I’m not pointing out these problems to say that any of these leaders had a bad response to this. It’s a (hopefully?) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and there isn’t going to be a perfect response. All these leaders listened to their expert advisors and made the choices they thought were best, and the only way we can really criticize them is in retrospect.

Wittenberg-Cox’s final trait is “love,” which she illustrates with the female Prime Minister of Norway, who held a talk just to explain the virus to children. That was an awesome idea, I agree! She writes, “Generally, the empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe than the one we have gotten used to. It’s like their arms are coming out of their videos to hold you close in a heart-felt and loving embrace. Who knew leaders could sound like this? Now we do.”

Jesus fucking Christ, this drives me nuts. You may have noticed I haven’t actually said the name of any of the women mentioned in Wittenberg-Cox’s article. That’s to make a point: it’s fine to make a list of powerful women, of awesome women, of successful women, whatever, but when you tie their worth to the fact that they’re women, you erase their identity in favor of focusing on the fact that they’re women and that’s why they’re successful, powerful, or awesome. And that’s garbage.

Look, I agree that toxic masculinity is a problem. As a society, we reward boys for aggression and forgive their anger, and we tend to reward girls for their empathy and forgive their weakness. This results in a world where men tend to have more trouble accessing the breadth of their emotions without mockery, and a world in which women tend to have more trouble showing assertiveness and power without being beaten down.

But it does not mean that women’s power is being heartfelt and loving. It means that the entire problem is that we can only see women as heartfelt and loving. All our problems wouldn’t be solved if every nation was led by a woman. Women are half of the fucking population. There are 4 billion of us. That means at least a few billion of us are assholes, just like men. 

For instance, let’s take a look at Bangladesh’s response to COVID-19. Instead of declaring a national emergency, they declared a holiday. They placed an emphasis on religious response, holding mass gatherings for prayer. No one even knows how many people are infected. Instead of decent social policies and education they activated the military against the poor. Who made those choices? The person in charge is Sheik Hasina, a woman. Because some women suck! Margaret Thatcher sucked! Theresa May sucked! Aung San Suu Kyi sucks! The governor of Alabama sucks — her own Lt. Governor said her response to the pandemic was shit. South Dakota’s female governor opposed the stay-at-home order and now is dealing with a serious outbreak. She sucks!

And even if a leader doesn’t outright suck, they’re still human. They can make mistakes. Wittenberg-Cox didn’t mention Singapore’s Halimah Yacob despite the fact that Singapore got a lot of praise for preventing COVID-19 from getting too bad there. But then they decided to open the country back up, and immediately saw a spike in cases. Yacob isn’t the messiah. She didn’t react well at first because she’s a woman and then suddenly become too manly and screw things up.

I’m all for pointing out that some great leaders are women, because I do live in a country where more people wanted Donald Trump as a president than basically any woman. Well, that’s not exactly true, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but it’s true that, in general, a mediocre man will make it much further in politics than an accomplished woman. The deck is stacked. But these successful female leaders are great because of their individual actions and motivations, not (just) because they’re women. Diversity is great because people’s backgrounds do play into how they think and act, but you can’t just say that 4 billion people share a particular trait that is good or bad for being a world leader. That’s infantilizing bullshit. Saying that we should elect women to be world leaders because they “love” more than men is just more gendered nonsense that will lead people to criticize any female candidate who comes across as too cold or bossy. It’s like “Wow, in that debate last night Elizabeth Warren sure had some great ideas for how to eliminate big money from politics, but I just didn’t feel like her arms are coming out of the video to hold me close in a heart-felt and loving embrace. I guess I’ll vote for the white dude.”

I guess all this annoys me because I’ve spent more than a decade arguing against ideas like “women’s intuition.” Women aren’t magical fairies here to improve the world. We’re human beings with logic and emotions and good and evil in our hearts just like men. It does no one any good to fight the patriarchy with magical thinking, or one day we’re going to elect the female Hitler because she made us feel cozy.

We can celebrate awesome women for succeeding in a misogynistic society, but let’s not credit their success to their chromosomes, their sex, or their personal identity. Those world leaders are doing a great job because they’re smart and determined and compassionate, just like their male colleagues.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I am glad you called out Wittenberg-Cox on this, I mean, she raised some good points but took it too far.
    As you say, the only way we can really criticise will be in retrospect, and it’s far too early to be awarding the COVID gold medals yet. This is pobably not a good way to make an argument that will stand the test of time.

    As far as I can see the country with the best record so far is Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million and zero deaths.
    Many fascist states in Eastern Europe have done quite well with this outbreak but I wouldn’t want to live under their regimes.

    As Obama said, good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things.

    I personally have a deep suspicion of all politicians, male or female. Their lust for power sets them apart from most of us and while aggression and anger may be stereotypical male characteristics, women can be equally toxic, they just have a different way of showing it.

  2. I was thinking about some of the bosses I have had. Best were Albert (M), Lorraine (F), Maryanne (F), Terry (M).

    While Lorraine and Maryanne were a lot sexier than Albert and Terry, who cared when we were in the middle of a project? We just needed someone to keep us on track and get us the resources we needed.

  3. Dear Rebecca, my wife and daughter rather liked Wittenberg-Cox’s idea that female leaders might handle a crisis of this type better than a typical male leader. When I foolishly jumped in with comments that echoed your own, they didn’t argue with me, simply stared at me silently for a few moments and then changed the subject.

    In regard to your statement: “Women aren’t magical fairies here to improve the world.” I would like to say that your argument is prosaically correct, but my personal experience is otherwise.

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