Having a woman as governor of a U.S. state is associated with fewer COVID-19 related deaths, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study also found that women governors exhibited greater empathy and confidence during their public briefings, which may help explain the association.
The authors of the study, Kayla Sergent of Edgewood College and Alex Stajkovic of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were inspired by previous research that had indicated women tend to be favored for leadership roles during periods of crisis.
“We were discussing the implications of the pandemic on society, and Alex suggested that women leaders may be more effective than men leaders,” explained Sergent, an assistant professor of management.
“As our conversations developed, we found a growing stream of research suggesting that women tend to be preferred as leaders during times of uncertainty. This helped us develop our research question, and we found the publicly available data on United States governors to test it with. Prior to this paper, we published several articles on confidence, so testing confidence as a mechanism to explain why women tend to be more effective leaders in a crisis was a natural fit within our research program.”
After controlling for governor’s age, tenure, state population, face mask mandates, bans on travel, ventilator sharing, and other factors, the researchers found that states with women governors tended to have a lower COVID-19 death rate and earlier stay-at-home orders. Currently, nine women are serving as governors of U.S. states.
“During a crisis, it seems that women tend to be more effective leaders than men, as we found states with female governors were associated with fewer COVID-19 related deaths than states with male governors,” Sergent told PsyPost.
Even among states that issued early stay-at-home orders, having a woman governor was still associated with fewer deaths, which “suggests that state residents perhaps responded differently depending on whether a man or woman governor issued this order,” the researchers said.
“We analyzed over 250 governor briefings, encompassing over 1.2 million words to examine why this might be the case. We found that women are generally more empathetic than men by connecting with their followers’ feelings and showing concern for their personal welfare. Women governors also expressed more confidence than men governors in terms of remaining optimistic that a brighter future is ahead,” Sergent explained.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations. The findings were based on the COVID-19 death count from January 21, 2020 to May 5, 2020, and the results could change as the virus continues to spread in the United States.
It’s also possible for men to exhibit some of the leadership qualities typically associated with women.
“Men can also exhibit traditionally feminine qualities because gender roles develop from an individual’s activities throughout their life. Therefore, although we found empathy and confidence to be associated more strongly with women’s leadership, not all men have different leadership styles than women,” Sergent said.
“The findings underscore the need to value different leadership voices and build a culture of inclusion in which varied voices are heard and valued. In the absence of women governors or women organizational leaders during a crisis, effort can be put forth to diversify leadership teams with individuals who show empathy and confidence.”
(Photo credit: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan)