How Do Crises Affect Women Leaders?
From the pandemic to the cost of living, politics in the UK and beyond has, in recent times, been marked by multiple, overlapping crises. But what is the impact of crisis on the women occupying the highest offices, in the context of a broader trend of increased representation of women in positions of political leadership? Diana O’Brien and Jennifer M. Piscopo look at the evidence.
When the pandemic paralysed the globe in March 2020, then-New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern captured global attention for her empathetic-yet-clear direction giving. By contrast, then-UK PM Boris Johnson made international headlines titled “the incompetence pandemic.” Ardern’s party would later win re-election in a landslide, while Johnson’s “bacchanalian” celebrations during nationwide lockdown contributed to his eventual resignation.
The contrast between Ardern and Johnson inverts some traditional gendered assumptions about leadership, particularly given the longstanding association between chief executive office and masculinity. Voters associate strong executive leadership with stereotypically masculine traits, like assertiveness and decisiveness. Researchers in turn have argued that this link makes it especially difficult for women to access, and succeed in, executive-branch posts.
Yet during the pandemic, news accounts contrasted women leaders who demonstrated clarity of purpose, like Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, with men like Johnson and Donald Trump, who blustered and boasted. Political scientists later uncovered no consistent link between chief executive gender and pandemic performance, even though the media still promoted stories about women’s strengths as pandemic era leaders.
These comparisons between competent women and blundering men raise an important question: how do crises affect women in elected office?
In a recent article introducing our co-edited essay collection, we consider how crises – from pandemics to terrorist attacks to extreme weather events – shape women’s access to, behaviour in, and exit from elected office. We define crises as external or internal events that disrupt the status quo and have the potential to transform who leads and how.
Of course, we also recognise that even defining an event or phenomenon as a “crisis” is not objective. Take the UK’s current “energy crisis”: low-income households may have struggled to pay for heat for years, but the “crisis” framing enters once the price hikes start to affect middle-class households and businesses.
Though crises are often socially or politically defined, moments of crisis nonetheless have real consequences for politics and policy. Take the 2009 scandal over British MPs’ abuse of their expense accounts: widespread anger led to MPs’ removal from office, but compared to male MPs, women MPs received more negative media coverage for their wrongdoing and lost their seats at higher rates.
Building on this example, we suggest that whether a crisis leads to praising or blaming current officeholders depends on how the type of crisis interacts with gender role expectations. Crises can deepen the relationship between masculinity, on the one hand, and political office, especially executive office, on the other. Role congruity theory tells us that the perceived incongruity between femininity and leadership may mean that women are not seen as “having what it takes” for the job.
That’s why women politicians are judged more severely than men for their perceived failures. In the case of the expenses scandal, women received harsher penalties because abusing funds violates gendered expectations that position women as more moral and honest relative to men. More generally, women may face disproportionate punishment for allowing corruption or overseeing financial mismanagement. That’s also why the pandemic-era contrasts between figures like Ardern and Johnson upended expectations: suddenly hypermasculine leaders like Johnson and Trump didn’t seem up to the job after all.
Crises can be a double-edged sword for women leaders
Crises also vary the gendered leadership traits they make salient. Crises of disorder, protest, and violence could very well fuel demands for masculinised forms of leadership, as leaders are expected to enforce law-and-order and act tough.
UK voters did not, for instance, give former PM Theresa May a public opinion bump following the 2017 terrorist bombing in Manchester, whereas they have rallied behind men chief executives during similar attacks elsewhere. During Chile’s 2019 social uprising, tough talk from the president’s office became associated with greater police brutality, all in efforts to quell the unrest and send protestors home.
Yet in some crisis situations women can benefit from gender stereotypes. Women are viewed as more honest and “cleaner” than men, for example, allowing some women politicians to access political power during corruption crises. Indeed, voters and parties prefer women candidates when distrust in current institutions is high. Crises can also remove incumbent men, paving the way for fresh faces and new approaches.
Importantly crises can also disrupt some of these stereotypes about gender and leadership. The praise heaped on women leaders during the pandemic signals a potential public hunger for a different, less traditional leadership style – one that is more empathetic and caring. As Ardern said in her resignation speech, “I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.”
In Chile, too, voters ultimately rejected the right-wing president’s tough approach. They sided with protestors’ demands for greater social justice and voted for Gabriel Boric in the 2021 elections – a then-36-year old progressive who sports tattoos, shares his openly feminist views, and listens to Taylor Swift.
It is not simply that some crises call for masculine leadership and others comport with stereotypes about femininity. Rather, crises can lead to a more fundamental disruption in what we want from our leaders.
Of course, no one wishes for a crisis, which often brings tragedy and loss. But the ever increasing number of disruptive events that seem to afflict politics requires that we acknowledge how crises serve as critical junctures that can transform leaders and leadership styles. Crises may turf women from office before their time, but they might also allow savvy politicians – women and men alike – to leverage new meaning from political leadership. As we note in our article, “think crisis, think gender.”