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How it took a worldwide pandemic to highlight the skills of our women leaders

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Published on 29 June 2020

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel

Professor Monika Foster is Head of the School of Business and Management at the University of Sunderland.

Here, she talks about how the success of female leadership during the Covid-19 is not a chance outcome, but rather a sign of things to come.


“As we begin to plan the next academic year, it is a good time to reflect on some of the unexpected lessons learned so far this year, prompted by the world pandemic.

My own reflection is that the pandemic has highlighted rather remarkable aspects of leadership skills, especially female leadership.

We teach leadership skills in the School of Business and Management and more widely in the University, so how can female leadership in the time of the pandemic inform our teaching and learning next academic session and beyond?

Leadership during the pandemic has been put to the test like no other time, the big one, political leadership, and the local leadership in workplaces and households, juggling new duties alongside family and health.

The political leadership was challenged not just by the world pandemic, but also by the societies caught in the unprecedented times.

At the same time, female leadership has proven to be quite successful as inspiring and leading calmly under pressure.

Female leaders in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Scotland, Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand have managed the crisis better than their male counterparts.

They have shown resilience, pragmatism, trust in collective common sense and humility. It is no coincidence that women leaders succeeded, this is not a chance outcome, this is a sign of new demands on leadership in 21st century.

Women leaders need to be tough to succeed and to achieve leadership in societies where women are still a minority in the boardroom.

They need to learn to deal with attempts to bring them down for the small things, such as their hair, much earlier in their careers, which makes them more resilient.

See for example the comment from the First Minister of Scotland, made during the pandemic:

‘The number of men, like his Lordship here, who are obsessed with my hair is a bit weird tbh. (Whereas most women look at it and just know no hairdresser has been anywhere near it ).’ First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, May 2020.

But this is not a gender issue only. In fact, the reasons for successful leadership are more complex and are to do with the societies.

Women tend to get elected as leaders in societies where there is greater presence of women in positions of power. This in turn creates a broader perspective on events such as the pandemic, with richer and more complete solutions, due to gender parity.

The 21st century has so far seen greater challenges that call for a new type of leadership, not based on command and control, but involving resilience, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, caring and striving for collective.

These characteristics align more readily with female leadership. Leadership is of course not confined just to the top positions and state roles, it matters more than ever in the workplace.

The work life balance challenges highlighted by the pandemic have impacted women especially, moving them back to the caring, family focused roles in many households, many juggling work with family responsibilities.

University of Sunderland programmes prepare students not just for the challenges of today but more so for the societies of tomorrow.

To make the most of the lessons learned from the pandemic, our courses can design in activities that empower all students to lead confidently in a volatile and changing circumstances. We can develop spaces for student groups and student projects to exercise skills in gender parity and promote actively diversity and diverse views.

Beyond academic programmes, in the workplace, the lessons learned from the female leadership should offer reflection in the workplace on how female leaders are supported and how their decisions are viewed.

The world pandemic has had catastrophic consequences on health and economy in societies worldwide. Let’s capitalise on this unprecedented time to ensure the next generations is better prepared for the challenges of 21st century. “