What do Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen all have in common? The answer is that these female leaders all emerged from the pandemic with their reputations enhanced, not (like an outgoing US President we could mention) shattered. And that’s got some wondering if the moral of 2020 is that countries thrive with women at the top.
Taiwan’s test-and-trace system is so good they’ve almost got normal life back; music festivals, Pride marches and even hugging are allowed. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern was re-elected PM with a landslide in October after virtually wiping out the virus by locking down early. And Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been ahead of the curve on everything from mask-wearing to U-turning when it became clear something had gone horribly wrong with estimated exam grades.
Kamala Harris’s election as America’s first Black female Vice President, meanwhile, has become a symbol of hope across the Atlantic. So is it just coincidence that the year ended with three of the women in Boris Johnson’s life – fiancée Carrie Symonds, new spin doctor Allegra Stratton and policy adviser Munira Mirza – uniting against a toxic ‘boys’ club’ inside Downing Street led by the now ousted top adviser Dominic Cummings?
Research suggests companies with women on the board make better decisions. It’s thought gender-balanced teams are more likely to listen, compromise, seek consensus and also bring different life experiences to bear.
This year suggests the same is true in a political crisis, with analysis by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum showing female-led countries had ‘systematically and significantly better’ Covid-19 outcomes, reacting faster and more decisively.
Had there been more women in the room when plans for the first lockdown were drawn up, Downing Street might have realised earlier that closing schools and nurseries risked forcing working mothers into choosing between the kids and the job. (Women were one-and-a-half times more likely than men to be furloughed or made redundant during that period.) With louder female voices around the Cabinet table, perhaps they’d have moved sooner to rescue the one in four nurseries warning they may not survive due to losses in lockdown.
It just felt as if decisions were being taken by one type of man for one type of man
‘It just felt as if decisions were being taken by one type of man for one type of man,’ recalls Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee. ‘I’ve stopped short of describing it as misogyny, it’s just thoughtlessness.’ But, she says, as the year ends there are encouraging signs of female influence growing.
Alicia Kearns, the pregnant Tory MP for Rutland and Melton, led a successful autumn campaign to relax Covid rules keeping partners out of maternity wards after hearing heartbreaking stories of women attending scans alone during the first lockdown, only to find they’d miscarried, or enduring difficult labours by themselves. ‘Unless you’ve been through it yourself [you might not know] that your partner isn’t just there to hold your hand,’ she says. ‘They’re the person who says, “No, wait, what are the other options?”’
When the Government announced another lockdown this November, with exemptions for two friends meeting to exercise outside, Kearns was similarly quick to ask why two new mothers couldn’t also be allowed to meet outside with their babies. Within hours, ministers had agreed under-fives wouldn’t count in the rule on meeting up, allowing parents to get a break by pushing prams together.
‘I think we’ve learned from the first time,’ says Kearns, who credits the health ministers Nadine Dorries and Helen Whately with securing a change of heart. Where women get involved on behalf of other women, things happen. More of that in 2021, please.