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Have female CEOs coped better with Covid than men?

By Nina Goswami
BBC reporter

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionNew Zealand's Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for her handling of the Covid pandemic

Have female world leaders been more effective in tackling the coronavirus pandemic than their male counterparts?

From New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is a widely-held view.

There have even been academic studies on the issue, with one claiming that "Covid outcomes are systematically better in countries led by women".

But even if women politicians have indeed coped better with the pandemic than their male counterparts, is it the same in the world of business?

We talked to five female business leaders about Covid - and discussed their views on whether there is a female-style of leadership.

image copyrightAvivah Wittenberg-Cox
image captionAvivah Wittenberg-Cox says that female bosses are generally less combative

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-First, a global consulting firm that supports businesses in enhancing gender diversity, says male bosses have been trying to copy their female opposite numbers this year.

"Every smart CEO watches what other leaders do, and I would suggest that what many [men] have done is borrow from the female playbook, which involves being incredibly caring of their stakeholders, and upping their communication skills," she says.

"Anglo-Saxon countries strike me as having a high expectation of masculinity, so with leaders... combative, individualistic and cut slightly macho. Female leadership is different in style and tone."

Sarah Beale, chief executive of the UK's Construction Industry Training Board, agrees that there is a "female playbook" when it comes to leadership, one that champions empathy.

image copyrightSteven Paston
image captionSarah Beale suggests that female bosses have more empathy

Her organisation allowed construction firms to suspend levy payments during the first lockdown, and provided financial support to 12,000 apprentices.

"There's always a danger in saying that a trait is entirely female or entirely male, as we're all a mix of both, and different personalities," says Ms Beale. "But reflecting on what I've personally done - and I've seen in other female leaders - is taking a step back, and placing yourself in the position of those that you're trying to work on behalf of."

Ann Francke, chief executive of the UK's Chartered Management Institute, which provides management training and qualifications, says the pandemic has led to more bosses embracing her long-held support of flexible working.

"I have always been candid with my people that I take walks with my dog, and talk to people on the phone [while doing so], which is getting work done," she says. "So they have always had permission to work flexibly.

image copyrightTom Stockill
image captionAnn Francke says that women have benefited from more flexible working

"Giving express permission to women to say that it's OK to fit your work around your life should be one of the benefits of this pandemic."

While during the lockdowns, reports say that women have had to shoulder more of the childcare and household work, something Ms Franke calls the "Covid conundrum", Kate Stevens, European boss of public relations firm AxiCom says she has welcomed the chance to work from home.

"Now we find ourselves in a world where it is entirely acceptable to see a senior individual doing a conference call with a small child on their lap," says Ms Stevens.

image copyrightKate Stevens
image captionKate Stevens says firms are now more accepting of women "juggling" work with family commitments

"Now it is acceptable to juggle things, and you don't have to be a hardnosed businesswoman of the 1980s. We work in a world where we've recognised that showing a vulnerability can be a strength when it is used in the right way.

"I think that female leaders tend to wear their heart on their sleeves a lot more than their male counterparts. You show people the reality of the world you're living in, and they can empathise with you and they support you more."

Yvonne Wassenaar, chief executive of US technology firm Puppet, agrees that female bosses are more open.

image copyrightYvonne Wassenaar
image captionYvonne Wassenaar hopes that appreciation of "feminine leadership" is here to stay

"What I've found is that if you're willing to be vulnerable, then people are willing to be vulnerable to you, and that's when you get true dialogue and true progress."

However, despite these stories of success during the pandemic, many challenges remain for female business leaders - and the young women who want to become one.

A recent report found that women, in general, are still not seen as being as suitable for leadership roles as men.

The study in question - the third annual Reykjavik Index for Leadership - interviewed more than 20,000 adult men and women across 10 countries back in July - the G7 nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, plus India, Kenya and Nigeria.

People were asked whether they thought men or women made better leaders, or whether there was no gender difference, across 22 political, government, legal and business sectors.

From this a 100-point scale was calculated, with the top score of 100 meaning that men and women were viewed as equally suitable leaders. The lower the figure, the fewer people consider women to be as good for the top positions.

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The overall score across the G7 nations was 73 points, the same as last year, and just one higher than in 2018.

The UK and Canada had the joint highest score of 81. For the UK this was up from 73 in 2019, while Canada had increased from 77. Nigeria, which was surveyed for the first time, was in last place on 47.

"There's just still a presumption that women are less entitled to lead than men," says Michelle Harrison of research group Kantar, which conducted the report together with Women Political Leaders, a global network of female politicians.

However, some female business leaders are hopeful that the pandemic will lead to a lasting change.

"Never before have we appreciated feminine leadership in the workplace as we now do, and that's here to stay," says Ms Wassenaar.

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