Gender Inequality Debate Goes Pandemic

Photo credit: iStockphoto/nito100

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some fascinating things about leadership, and one of them is the debate on the performance of male leaders compared with their female counterparts.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde went out on a limb recently and said that women leaders had done a much better job during the pandemic.

“I am going to be extremely biased,” she said. “I’m not going to be a central banker at this very moment, but I would say that for myself, I’ve learned that women tend to do a better job.”

Gender priority differences help

One might see Lagarde’s comments as a question of — biased — opinion, but there has been an attempt at a much more scientific analysis of this issue which confirms this view.

It has become easy to contrast the pandemic responses of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro on the one hand with Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, but what do the figures say?

According to a team of experts led by Trinity College in Dublin, countries with male leaders — in which the economy has been prioritized over public health — have seen 4.3 times more COVID-19 deaths compared with countries with female leaders where public health has been a priority.

Even when analyzing the results in terms of death per capita, the death rate in female-led countries was 1.6 times less than in those led by men.

The insight from all this is that female leaders are more concerned with health than with economics and have made it their number one concern.

The view of these female leaders is to get the public health situation right, and then the economy can start to come back.

One only has to look at New Zealand, which is COVID-19 free at the moment, to see this in action. Jacinda Ardern and Donald Trump are both facing re-election very soon, and Ardern’s response to the pandemic has her soaring in the polls, while Trump could be a one-term president because of perceptions of his failure.

Ticking time bomb

Politics is one thing, and those gender-based insights make the next issue seem ironic and even cruel.

In many countries, women have been disproportionately disadvantaged in the labor market than their male counterparts — and these are countries where male leaders have mismanaged the public health response to the pandemic.

Australia is about to mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act, a landmark piece of legislation, and yet women — who are also bearing the brunt of extra housework and child care — are losing their jobs at a much faster rate right now than men.

This is a ticking time bomb because under Australia’s compulsory pension scheme, employers pay 9.5% of an employee’s wage into their pension account. So female workers are not only being disadvantaged now, but they will take that disadvantage into retirement.

In the U.K., research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that mothers are 47% likely to have permanently lost their job or have been forced to quit work, and are 14% more likely to have been forced into a furlough period.

Across the developed world, two sectors which have been hardest hit have been hospitality and retail, and they also employ a majority of women. These jobs are also likely to come back much slower than in other sectors of the economy, creating the prospect of long-term dislocation.

Other data also paints a grim picture. According to the Resolution Foundation, one in ten lower income earners have been able to work from home during the pandemic, and 69% of low income earners are women.

The better news is that in countries with women leaders, the pandemic has had less of an economic impact, so these negative impacts on female employment may not be so severe.

It seems severe to suggest, but is the cause of female employment equality being undermined by incompetent male political leadership? An issue for a debate at a later time, perhaps.

Tech makes it worse

A final point to make is around technology. It has been well documented during the pandemic that many organizations have fast tracked technology investments, and one area has been in automation, artificial intelligence and the implementation of robots.

If you think the issue would be gender neutral, then consider the proposition from recent research at Kings College London and the London School of Economics, that the use of robots in the workplace has a “sizeable” impact on the gender pay gap in Europe.

That study found that for every 10% increase in the number of robots in an organization, this created a 1.8% increase in the pay gap between male and female employees.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the pandemic has had the side effect of setting back workplace equality, some say by several decades.

The solution? The robot issue may be a hard one to solve, but one response to the pandemic could be to elect more female leaders. Another subject for debate, perhaps.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/nito100