As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of female state leaders are managing this historical crisis in their respective countries better than their male counterparts.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clear, direct and empathic communication style got the country to come together to contain the new coronavirus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel based her response on science and has been blunt on how COVID-19 will stay in our lives for a long time. Under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, China’s neighbor Taiwan prioritized public health and managed to keep the number of cases below 500 and the death toll to seven people.

Meanwhile, strongmen such as presidents Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia underestimated the coronavirus in its early stages, dragging their feet in taking action and downplaying the health risk of COVID-19 on the people in their countries.

Many scholars have argued that the world is safer and more humane where women are in charge. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that research shows women score higher than men in most leadership skills.

Women leaders not only show effective leadership capabilities that are IQ-based, such as having technical or professional expertise and the ability to analyze problems and come up with solutions; they also more commonly show behaviors that stem from high emotional intelligence, such as displaying high integrity and honesty, inspiring and motivating others, and collaborating and developing relationships — behaviors that build trust.

Yet despite this, when we look everywhere, few women are in decision-making positions. Nearly half of the world’s population is women. But in 2020, out of 193 states that are members of the United Nations, only 12 are led by women.

Around the world, legal discrimination against women, unfair social norms and attitudes, and the controlling of women’s bodies by patriarchal communities and governments continue to create structural barriers to gender equality. For example, according to the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, more girls than boys are not getting an education. And according to the World Bank, in 2019 less than half (47.7 percent) of all women participated in the labor force.

Of those who have survived these hurdles, completing their education and securing jobs, many don’t rise to leadership positions. In 2019, the world saw women holding only 29 percent of senior management roles in corporations.

In addition to the gender inequalities in education and labor participation, women dropping off from the labor force after marriage and motherhood and low confidence among young women over their leadership capabilities contribute to this gender gap in leadership positions.

So what can those who are already in leadership positions do to make sure more women sit in the top positions?

I am among few women who hold a top position in an organization. I lead The Conversation Indonesia, a nonprofit media startup that shares expert knowledge to help the public make informed decisions.

Learning from my journey as a woman leader as well as from the experience of my female peers who are raising children, I believe leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors can provide at least three things to enable more women to reach senior positions in organizations.

First, create a work culture that promotes work-life balance. Organizations can provide a flexible work arrangement, allowing workers to decide where to work and, if possible, when they start and end their work hours. COVID-19 social restrictions show that many work tasks can be completed anywhere with an internet connection, making office attendance unnecessary.

Flexible work arrangements will not only support more women, who disproportionately take on the bulk of domestic duties in the family, to stay in the workforce; it will also provide opportunities for men to contribute more to domestic chores and parenting.

In urban areas like Jakarta, female labor force participation rates are highest in women between 25 and 29 years — reaching nearly 67 percent. But when women enter their 30s, the rate drops to 53.82 percent. According to research by economist Diahhadi Setyonaluri 53 percent of women who have been married cite marriage, motherhood and family as reasons for their decisions to quit their jobs. Having to forgo long commutes and long hours at the office will help women avoid having to make the difficult decision of giving up their careers.

Second, sponsor competent women workers to take on projects that can build their leadership skills. A lifetime of being told to be dutiful often makes women reliable workers. But this might also stop them from believing that they deserve to take charge. Many women often don’t apply for a position unless they convinced that they are 100 percent qualified. Meanwhile, men are more confident in trying out for higher positions even when they are underqualified.

Zenger and Folkman’s research also compared how men and women assess their confidence. They found women under 25 have lower confidence than their male peers, and that this gap closes at 40. Having someone believing in their abilities provides the initial boost for young women to increase their confidence.

Third, after identifying emerging women leaders, provide them with resources, such as mentorship, coaching and training, to improve their leadership skills. Some people show leadership traits from a young age, but for many people, it’s a learned skill acquired through experience. Mentor them along the way and watch them learn from their mistakes.

We have seen enough men without principles running the show. We need more leaders with humility, self-awareness and empathy, traits commonly found in women. Imagine if more leaders — regardless of gender — exhibited these traits. Society would be better off as a whole.


Executive editor, The Conversation Indonesia and a 2019 Asia-Pacific Obama leader

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.Women

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