Women Are the Leaders We Need Now

What do Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan have in common, in addition to their so far doing a good job of containing the spread of COVID-19?

All six countries are led by women.

Why is it, actually, that women leaders have done a better job of managing this unprecedented crisis, at least thus far?

The first and most obvious reason is that most women care. They bring to their jobs a lifetime of experience of caring about their loved ones, their community, those in their world.

Just “caring,” though, includes many other skills that make a good leader: you can’t care well if you don’t listen, and women are good at listening. Because effective care work is so complex, requiring nuanced and differentiated responses depending on who is receiving that care — a child, an elderly parent, a neighbor, oneself — women have long been experts at multi-tasking, another essential component of good management.

Market Day in Bamako’s Commune 1, where WomenStrong member Mali Health fears that the onslaught of malaria this rainy season along with Covid-19 will overwhelm the fragile health system.

With the need to address multiple challenges simultaneously, women learn to be problem solvers nonpareil. And to implement complex solutions, they know they need partners with whom they will need to cooperate and whose own needs they also must acknowledge. But one can’t work collaboratively if one is too dogmatic, aggressive, self-serving, or authoritarian — one needs to be a team player, in fact, with empathy for those on the team.

Finally, most women have experienced some form of rejection — being refused, perhaps ridiculed, told “No,” and “No” again. Women who have run the gauntlet on their way to becoming leaders have somehow figured out how, after such rebuffs, to pull themselves up, refresh their spirits, retool their strategies, and try, try again — with the hope of succeeding, next time around.

That determination and resilience are also key characteristics of effective leadership. We’re seeing this leadership in all our WomenStrong members — women running grassroots organizations working with low-income women and girls in urban and peri-urban settings from the Philippines to Madagascar to Mexico to Michigan, as the planet convulses and their own worlds and communities shut down.

With schools and clinics closed under quarantine, it’s not possible, as our members had planned, to work closely with groups of girls or boys, hold the hand of a victim of sexual assault, train midwives and doulas remotely, or for those doulas to attend the delivery of a newborn to a traumatized young mother who herself has been the victim of sexual violence. Unable to carry out their programming, our leaders’ attention turned immediately to their staff’s wellbeing and the welling of the women and girls with whom they work.

They’re concerned about the vanished incomes of the street vendors and hawkers and day laborers who are suddenly unable to work the streets of Blantyre, Bamako, or Brooklyn, of the newly jobless garment and entertainment workers in Phnom Penh and the farmer women in Guatemala’s hardhit Patzun region, and they’re panicked about the increased incidence of domestic and gender-based violence and the expected further increases to come.

Intake at Mobile Women’s Health Clinic, Kumasi, Ghana

Our WomenStrong leaders have reached out to those in these communities — via phone, messaging, WhatsApp, and by asking those with phones to reach out to those without, to make sure they’re ok. A number of leaders have brought food to their communities, to stave off increasing hunger, and menstrual hygiene supplies, to help their adolescent girls retain their dignity as they handle their periods, while jammed with 8–10 family members into shacks and slum dwellings that lack running water and sanitation.

With each such delivery, our members share vital, rumor-free health information they have translated into the local languages about the virus and how to stay safe. They are also experimenting with both innovative and old-fashioned channels to deliver this information — from audio skits, storytelling, and expert guidance shared over the internet and social media, to community radio, leafleting, and improvised sound trucks blaring reliable public health messages, neighborhood after neighborhood.

Our leaders have calculated how long they can afford to keep idled staff on payroll, how to divide up this new humanitarian outreach to keep everyone engaged and productive, and how to use the shut-in time to strengthen their organizational capacity for online work, monitoring and evaluation, and self-care.

Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed the opportunistic strangling of democratic space in Hungary and Poland, the reckless bravado sported by the cavalier leaders of Brazil, the United Kingdom, and United States, and draconian crackdowns in authoritarian Cambodia, Uganda, and the Philippines, where WomenStrong leaders, more usefully, are striving to protect and build resilience the women, girls, and boys with whom they work.

So here’s to the caring, courage, resilience, and practical wisdom of women. They’re out there, getting it done. Listen to them — they know what’s happening, and they know what to do.

Founder & Executive Director of WomenStrong International. Director of Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University.