Leadership during COVID-19: Why We Need More Women and Gender Diverse Leaders
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Illustrations by Alex McPhail, BA (Hons)
Hi, my name is Roma (she/her) and I am the author of this post! I am a cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, South Asian woman. I currently reside on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Neutral, Mississaugas of the First Credit Nation, and Mississauga Peoples. This unceded land of Treaty 3 3/4 and Treaty 8 is currently known as Burlington, Ontario. The post you will now read is going to examine the representation of women and gender diverse folks in COVID-19 leadership and decision-making. While this will become apparent in the post, I would like to highlight here the extreme lack of BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ individuals in leadership positions across Canada. This is not because individuals belonging to these groups are not qualified, deserving, or seeking leadership roles, but because of historical and continued barriers that prevent BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ folks from accessing leadership positions. I would like to clarify that my intention is not to speak on behalf of these groups, but to bring more attention to the scientifically-backed research and experiences of communities that are historically and currently under-researched. As a researcher and writer who is passionate about health justice, I am committed to responsible allyship. I encourage feedback on this post should I misrepresent any of the communities I attempt to amplify. I hope you find this post helpful and engaging! Happy reading!
In this post we discuss the importance of women and gender diverse folks in leadership as we navigate and attempt recovery from the COVID 19 pandemic. The topics addressed include:
Given the gendered impacts of COVID-19 that we have discussed in other posts, it is essential that we have women and gender diverse leaders developing the policies to address these issues and help with the overall recovery from the pandemic. Gender equality is known to improve collaboration and lead to the adoption of more inclusive solutions (1-2). Diversity of perspectives within organizations helps address unique problems that impact historically excluded groups that may not be identified otherwise (1-2, 3*-4*). We have seen that this pandemic poses greater challenges to BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, gender diverse folks and other structurally vulnerable women. Having a diverse array of women and gender diverse folks' voices in leadership will be essential for an equitable recovery from COVID-19.
Women’s Leadership Style
On a global scale, women are leading the way to effective and robust COVID-19 response, even though they are still underrepresented in decision-making roles. Countries led by women, such as Taiwan, Germany, and New Zealand report more effective responses to COVID-19, including fewer outbreaks, lower death rates, and more successful social isolation measures (5-6). While it is short-sighted to claim that these countries are doing better due to the efforts of one individual, there is reason to suggest that women’s leadership styles are uniquely suited to a robust pandemic response.
A study of 454 men and 365 women between March and June 2020 found that women leaders rated higher in 13 out of 19 leadership competencies (7*). Some of the competencies where women leaders out-performed men leaders were in taking initiative, championing change, valuing diversity, and taking risks. Women’s leadership style is known to be more transparent, ethical, compassionate, and collaborative (8*). This is essential during COVID-19 when we need empathetic and fact-based delivery of health information.
Interestingly, women’s overall leadership effectiveness rating increased significantly since the advent of the pandemic, suggesting that women do well in crisis (7*). There is a term for this phenomenon referred to as “The Glass Cliff.” We’ve all heard of “The Glass Ceiling” but “The Glass Cliff” refers to the idea that women face barriers to advancement in leadership, but when they are given a chance to perform in leadership roles, they are usually put into situations of crisis where the chances of failure are high (7*).
When we talk about women leaders who are at the forefront of policy response during COVID-19 (and prior), we still must realize that these are predominantly white, cisgender women. This means that large groups of women, including women of colour, Indigenous women, and LGBTQ2S+ individuals are still being left out of the conversation. Why does this matter? Well, firstly, diverse leadership just works better! Numerous studies have shown that diverse groups are more likely to include a wide range of experiences and perspectives into their problem-solving which translates to more innovative and creative solutions (1-2). This is especially important during a pandemic where we are experiencing unprecedented problems that require inclusive and equitable solutions.
More importantly, the policy-response to COVID-19 globally and in Canada thus far has undermined the needs of racialized groups, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and other structurally vulnerable groups. One reason for this could be that individuals from diverse backgrounds are underrepresented in decision-making roles. In turn, there may not be enough leaders bringing attention to the needs of equity-deserving groups leading to a failure to enact policies that address these needs (3*-4*). This means that the inequalities imposed upon these groups continue to fly under the radar and be ignored, and we end up oppressing already-disadvantaged groups further.
Underrepresentation of Women in Leadership Positions
As a whole, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in leadership positions across various sectors. Despite women excelling in political leadership both during and prior to the pandemic, women are Heads of State and Government in only 21 countries worldwide (9). Women represent <35% of elected officials and members of national parliaments (10-11). When it comes to leadership in healthcare, women represent <25% of the world’s health ministers, senior members of healthcare institutions, and executives of global health organizations (12*, 13*, 14*). This is despite the fact that women make up 70% of health sector workers worldwide (15*).
When it comes to COVID-19, a study from October 2020 found that of 115 identified decision-making and expert task forces, only 3.5% had an equal number of male and female members (4*). 85.2% of task forces contained predominantly men and 81.2% were led by men. While this study relies on binary definitions of gender and does not disaggregate by identities such as BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+, it does suggest a severe lack of women being at the policy-making table for the COVID-19 response.
There is reason to believe that if these numbers had looked at white cisgender women and racially-diverse and gender-diverse individuals separately, there would be a stark difference in the numbers, at least for North America. As of January 2020 in the United States (U.S.), while women held approximately 40% of management-level positions, almost all (33.4%) of these positions were held by white women (16*). Data for LGBTQ2S+ in leadership is difficult to estimate because almost half of sexually-diverse and gender-diverse workers in the U.S. report being closeted in the workplace due to fear of discrimination and harassment (17). However, a recent statistic by Out Leadership suggests that <3% of the Fortune 500 board of directors are openly LGBTQ2S+ (18).
Women are historically and continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions for numerous reasons. Gender stereotypes and biases contribute to the idea that women are not suited for leadership roles (19). Women face greater scrutiny and criticism in the workplace which translates to lower confidence in applying to leadership roles and believing they can be successful in these positions. Women also experience limited access to mentors and role models that can coach and recommend them for leadership roles. Leadership positions may also not facilitate enough work-life balance for women with children and other responsibilities at home. The interaction of all these factors lead to less women pursuing and having equitable access to leadership positions.
Again, racialized women, LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and other structurally-vulnerable women face compounding discriminations which make it even more difficult for them to access and flourish within leadership positions. In the U.S., at least 20% of LGBTQ2S+ individuals report experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation when seeking employment, equal pay, or promotion (20). LGBTQ2S+ People of Colour are 19% more likely to experience this type of discrimination than white LGBTQ2S+ individuals. Women of colour are less likely to be seen as deserving and qualified for leadership positions despite their credentials (21*). This is because both men and white women are seen as more typical leaders. This leads to a “double jeopardy” effect where BIPOC women are seen as the least typical leaders since neither of their identities fit into the image of the typical leader. BIack and other racialized women in leadership are also judged more harshly than their peers who are male or white, so when BIPOC women are promoted to leadership roles, they are not allowed to make mistakes.
Canadian Women in Leadership Roles
But what about Canada? How are we doing when it comes to gender equality in COVID-19 leadership? Canada has received applause for having (predominantly cisgender) women at the forefront of COVID-19 response (22-23). Half of our provincial chief medical officers (CMO) are women, including Dr. Theresa Tam, who is Canada’s chief public health officer. These women have been the face of the COVID-19 response for Canada. This is encouraging as it is extremely important for young women to see themselves represented in the nation’s leaders. 86% of working women report that seeing women in leadership makes them believe they can achieve these types of positions (24*).
However, Canada still has more work to do! In 2018, we only had two female-identifying deans of medicine out of a possible 17 and six women on the Canadian Medical Association board of 20 members (25). This is despite women representing 41% of physicians in Canada and 63% of medical students. While this data from the Canadian Medical Association was not disaggregated by race, medical schools at the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia are known to have a troubling lack of Black medical students (26).
The lack of women in decision-making positions also translates to the political and corporate spheres. According to 2019 Statistics Canada data, only 29.6% of the House of Commons is made up of women and only 35.3% of Canadian women are in management positions (27*).
There are also fewer women-led businesses in Canada and women-led businesses have been more severely impacted by the economic downturn during COVID-19 (28*-29*). Women-led businesses tend to be smaller and within industries that were disproportionately affected by lockdown policies. More businesses majority-owned by women reported being unable to take on any more debt in Oct 2020. Owners of small businesses are important leaders in the Canadian economy, and women who own businesses need to be supported during this time.
The representation of women in Canadian leadership is even worse when we look at data that is disaggregated by race. There are virtually no Black women among boards of directors of major Canadian cities and very few racialized women in senior leadership positions across various sectors such as government, education, and business (30*-32*). Similar underrepresentation is likely true for other equity deserving groups such as Indigenous women and LGBTQ2S+ individuals; however, data is lacking.
Why We Need More Women in Leadership
Some may ask, why does this matter? Isn’t it more important to have “good” leaders regardless of gender identity? Lack of women in COVID-19 leadership and policy-making positions makes it more difficult for the unique needs of women to be seen and addressed (3*-4*). For example, women have been disproportionately affected by unemployment, unpaid care work, and intimate partner violence due to gender inequitable responses to the pandemic. Women’s health issues such as access to sexual and reproductive health services have also fallen to the wayside (33). Including and facilitating BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ individuals in leadership is all the more important as these voices are largely missing, especially in Canadian leadership. The BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities have faced unique challenges during COVID-19, and their needs have not been adequately addressed (34*, 35). We need more diverse women in leadership to bring light to these issues and inform feminist policies to help all women during this time, not just those who get the greatest visibility.
Not only do we need more women in leadership to address the gendered impacts of COVID-19, but these same gendered impacts can also negatively impact the women leaders we already have. Women in leadership positions may have to make tradeoffs between their leadership roles and the increase in at-home, unpaid care work during COVID-19 for which women have largely taken responsibility. A U.S. study by McKinsey & Company found that women with children, senior-level women, and Black women are considering downshifting their careers due to lack of flexibility, feeling like they have to always be available to work, and facing more housework and caregiving duties (36*). All these concerns lead to employee burnout in women. We need to help our women in leadership during this time so they can better help us.
Calls to Action
We suggest the following Calls to Action to address issues facing women and gender diverse folks in leadership during COVID-19:
Acknowledge that women and gender diverse folks are still underrepresented in leadership positions across various sectors (politics, healthcare, business, etc.).
Address the long-standing barriers that prevent women and gender diverse folks from accessing leadership roles.
Make serious efforts to incorporate diverse women and gender diverse folks in leadership positions, including BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ individuals.
Realize the multiple roles women can fill at home and at work and allow more flexibility in leadership positions. Women should not feel like they are “always on” or must always be available to work.
Encourage both partners in heterosexual households to take on an equal amount of caregiving and household duties so women are not disproportionately burdened.
Address employee burden and make institution-level changes that help ameliorate burden faced by women and gender diverse folks in leadership positions.
Work towards closing the gender wage gap so women are fairly compensated for their work.
Work towards closing the gender wage gap between white women and BIPOC women so that racialized women are fairly compensated for their work.
Learn about Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American woman to become a doctor of medicine in the United States here.
Some of the data available and used to inform this post compares women and men. The term “women” is used when referring to cisgender women or where research did not specifically mention the gender identity of women included.
*These sources do not specify the gender identity of the women included. Historical representation leads us to believe only cisgender women were included.
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