10 Prominent Women Spotlight the Need for Women’s Leadership During the Pandemic and Beyond

By Marianne Schnall

A few weeks ago an evocative meme was making the social media rounds: a picture of the leaders of Germany, New Zealand, Belgium, Finland, Iceland and Denmark with the caption “COVID-19 is everywhere but countries with heads of state managing the crisis better seem to have something in common…” Of course the answer was that they were all women. The narrative is that from Angela Merkel of Germany to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand to Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan (as well as the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway), it does appear that countries who have female leaders at the helm are proving to be faring better during the pandemic thanks to their effective handling of the response to the COVID-19 crisis.  

It’s important to underscore this story because it counteracts a long-held false narrative that somehow women aren’t as well suited or prepared to be leaders—and that leadership in general, particularly as heads of state, is the more natural realm of men. This false notion can lead to many misconceptions with damaging outcomes. For example, it fosters a self-perpetuating belief that somehow women candidates aren’t electable or may be a political risk, which may be part of the reason we have yet to elect a female president here in the United States. 

Women are still so vastly underrepresented in all levels and sectors of leadership here in the US and around the world. According to Axios, at the start of this year, only 15 of the 193 United Nations countries were led by women, and that has now dropped to 13. Women currently make up only 23.7% of the US Congress and only 5.8 % of Fortune 500 CEOsand these numbers fall even lower when it comes to women of color.

The efficacy of female leaders handling this pandemic, and what we can learn from what leadership qualities and skills women bring to leadership, are lessons worth noting as we seek to rebuild our country, economy, and address the many problems we face as a nation and world. We need women leaders, and leaders of all genders can learn the traits these women model as we create new updated paradigms of leadership.

We now have a forced opportunity to fix the many cracks in our broken systemsthis pandemic is prompting us to rethink and rebuild our world. So one of our top goals should be a more equal number of female leaders (and diversity generally) as part of our stewardship of this planet. We need women’s voices, perspectives, visions, innovations and solutions now more than ever.

I had the opportunity to reach out to a group of prominent female leaders to get their thoughts on this topic—on what they think women bring to leadership and what it will take to make sure we have them seated at the tables where important decisions are being made, especially at this critical time when so much is at stake for the present and the future of our country and our world. Please read on for their perspectives, hopes, and calls to action.

Featuring insights from: Alicia Garza, Melinda Gates, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dolores Huerta, Barbara Lee, Pat Mitchell, Mónica Ramírez, Mary Robinson, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Tina Tchen

Alicia Garza

Principal of Black Futures Lab, Strategy and Partnerships Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Supermajority.

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

Women leaders bring an intimate knowledge of what it means to navigate a world designed for and by men—and Black women leaders, alongside other women of color leaders, bring an intimate knowledge of what it means to navigate a world designed for and by white men.

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is it important that they are? 

Women have always been at the forefront of some of the most influential movements for social change, and this is certainly that moment where change is inevitable. Whether it be the movement for trans liberation, equal pay, the right to vote, or the right to live equally—women have led the charge. We need women to lead in this moment who are not simply satisfied with achieving the status of men—we need women leaders who are ready to transform our whole set-up so that no one is left behind.

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership? 

To encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership, we need to be conscious of speaking to and organizing around issues that impact all of us. We can vote in such a way that sends a clear message that women will not be sidelined and we will not wait our turn. Women already have great models of leaders in our communities who defy the odds and lead anyway, but we need to put more resources and support behind women who are ready to lead. We can start with fighting for a Black woman who shares our values of dignity, respect, equity, and power to become vice president of the United States, continue on to appoint the first Black woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, and we can make sure that the agenda for this country moving forward addresses the needs and dreams of women. Women, especially Black women and women of color, are already leading in this vein—let’s make sure we have what is needed to be even more successful.

Melinda Gates

Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures

Right now there’s all this talk about how female leaders around the world are fairing so much better during the pandemic and being such effective leaders. Why do you think that is, and what do women ultimately bring to leadership? 

Because they bring a whole-life perspective to their jobs. They don’t come with just an economic perspective. They come with a full perspective—for example, maybe as a member of the ‘sandwich generation’ with the experience of having older parents and young kids in the house while also working.

Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand has a young child, so she knows how hard it is to be a working mom. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was underestimated at her job from the very beginning, is a physicist. She brings her perspective as a scientist to the role—follow the science, do the testing, do the tracing, think about the most vulnerable people, open up slowly. That’s full female leadership at its core. And, quite frankly, the male leaders who are doing well in this crisis are the ones who also have that full perspective of, “How do we care for everybody?” They let some of their feminine side come through. For too long we’ve looked at leadership as being a male style. Instead, we need leaders who bring whole-life perspectives into their roles.

What is your highest, most aspirational vision of a new improved world that is possible? Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset, and why is that important that they are?

I believe that if you want to have a better society—a society that takes care of everyone—you have to have gender equality. And we’re just not there yet in the United States. To me, a new, improved world is one where we have true equality for everyone in society. We need to stop pushing women’s issues into side conversations and calling them soft issues. Women—and not just white women, all women, women of color, too—deserve their seat at the table alongside men. So let’s embrace diverse perspectives and build the world we want, a world that takes care of everyone in our human family and takes care of the earth as well.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Democratic New York Senator, Founder of Off the Sidelines

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

First and foremost, women bring needed representation and perspective to the table. No system that excludes half the population from the decision-making room is going to get results that work for everyone. Women change the conversation and they change the outcomes of those conversations. 

I’ve seen the difference time and time again in the Senate, in discussions ranging from military readiness to the Affordable Care Act. If we had more women in office, we wouldn’t still be debating whether we should have access to contraception. Women are the glue in our communities. We know the issues that impact our families and children—whether that’s clean air and water, the economy, or a global public health emergency. Women leaders around the world are focused on how this pandemic is affecting communities, not just corporations. That’s our job as public servants: to help people and advocate for their needs.

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is it important that they are? 

Women are already at the forefront of our response to this crisis, as leaders on the global level and in all of our communities. One in every three jobs held by women has been deemed essential, and women of color are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. Nine out of ten nurses and nursing assistants are women. The majority of respiratory therapists, pharmacists and pharmacy aides are women. And two-thirds of grocery store clerks and fast food workers are women.

Women are also facing the brunt of the economic fallout. The jobs report released on May 8 showed that women accounted for 55% of the job losses in April, and the female unemployment rate hit double digits for the first time since 1948. The numbers are even worse for women of color. 

I hope that this recognition of how essential women are to our country and economy is reflected in major shifts in the way our country treats women. That means electing more women. It means providing women with equal pay for equal work. And it means providing universal paid leave so that no one is forced to choose between their job and their family.

When this crisis is over, we are going to have to rebuild our nation. It’s so important that we use the present to build the future we deserve. Women need to put themselves at the forefront of the reset and push for bold, transformative policies that will fundamentally reshape the way we work and live.

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership?

This is a question I think about every day. The most important thing for women to do is get off the sidelines and recognize that their voices matter. Sharing your story matters. Whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, Congress, or at home, every woman can affect change in ways both big and small. If there is an issue you care about and you want to do something about, speak up. Go for the promotion, run for office, take that next step–I guarantee you that men aren’t questioning whether they’re qualified to do it.

One of the best ways we can encourage more women to step up is to support those already doing so. Find women who are running for the Senate and the House and local office and support their campaigns. Give them money, share their posts on social media, use whatever platform you have. It really makes a difference. I am supporting about a dozen Senate candidates through Off the Sidelines who are running in red states and purples states. If just four of them win, we can flip the Senate, start passing legislation that helps women, and stop Donald Trump from packing the courts.

Dolores Huerta

Labor Leader and Community Organizer, President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Co-Founder United Farm Workers

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

Women do not want to see family members killed and that is why women leaders generally do not support wars. The COVID-19 virus epidemic is an invisible enemy, and we are responding with war-like conditions that need all individuals to cooperate to save the whole. Women, for the most part, care about children and family members, making sure they have basics of food, shelter, safety, and mental and physical health. This also impacts why women would not initiate wars where people are killed. Because of this “familial” philosophy and feeling, women leaders do not want to see people die and will try to save as many as they can. 

Women also tend to be less violent and less aggressive than men so they  attack in different ways than men—more strategic, not responding to an attack with a head-on attack, which means more long-term solutions to a problem. Women will also tend to use more of a team approach, sharing ideas and involving others in problem solving. Finding solutions through creativity and exploring new avenues is also important. Building consensus. Getting feedback from others. Accepting critiques and not taking things personally. Taking credit for an idea or solution is not as important as solving the problem. Less ego is involved when women approach problems and act to find solutions. 

I believe women also see issues that affect people’s health as a priority that needs to be addressed immediately. They are thinking of the greater good for everyone without hurting others in the process.

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is it important that they are? 

In our history, we saw after the Depression of the thirties that women changed history, like Francis Perkins, who was part of FDR’s administration, implemented many new important social programs, like social security. Others like Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Madam Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt. Patricia Bach invented laser for eye surgery, and so many others were innovators in areas that affected the human race. 

This pandemic has highlighted the social weaknesses that need to be addressed—the income inequality, the disparities in health, the need for affordable housing, the environment and issues that put the lives of humans on this planet at great risk for survival.

This is a “wake up moment” for our society if our human race is going to survive. Women have a history of being great at working and leading when the issues are about people—as teachers, nurses, social workers, and more. Women as leaders are needed now more than ever. 

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership?

We need to start educating girls (and boys) starting with preschool that women are equal to men. That they do not have to be subservient and accommodating to men. That they have individual power and will not be intimidated, seduced or dominated by others. To be fearless, courageous, adventurous and have faith in themselves. To never be afraid to take on a job or a task, even if they feel they do not have the education or experience. 

Always have faith in yourself, take credit for your work, learn from others and your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to lead. Sí Se Puede! 

Barbara Lee

Democratic US Representative, California

The recent news stories highlighting the progress that women-led countries have made during this pandemic illustrate what I have always known to be true: when given the opportunity, women excel. 

Women understand the importance of compassion, communication and reason. They bring a perspective and a voice that is too often overlooked and underrepresented, and yet they continue to unabashedly advocate for their families, communities, and countries. 

To me, there is no better example of this than the late, great Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. I first met Congresswoman Chisholm when I was a young, single mom on public assistance and food stamps. I was active in the community–serving as President of the Black Student Union, volunteering with the Black Panther Party, while raising two young boys. The time I spent on her campaign deeply impacted my life, and her words of wisdom continue to resound in my ear.

When people doubted Congresswoman Chisholm’s qualifications to lead the United States, she challenged their hesitations. She asked what was wrong with her running for president of the United States when, after all, she had already been the ghostwriter for a lot of them. 

Often unsung, women have always been at the forefront of progress, and women shall remain here as we encounter this global reset. And it is important for women to lead this charge. They show what it means to stand in the face of overwhelming obstacles and overcome.    

We inspire women of all generations to step up by encouraging them to be the strong leaders that they are destined to be. By supporting and nurturing their voices that are meant to be heard. We teach them that they stand on the shoulders of change-agents who refused to be deterred by the barriers set before them, and we remind them that ceilings are made of glass because they are meant to be shattered. 

Pat Mitchell

Media executive, author, and the editorial director of TEDWomen. She was the first female president of PBS.

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

When surveys were done of leaders to determine what attributes characterized transformative change leaders, most of the attributes—willingness to collaborate, cooperate, build community, seek consensus—were high on the list, as was the conclusion that these are qualities/attributes most associated with women, as is empathy, compassion, flexibility, courage and risk taking. The current crisis and the way women leaders have handled it are good examples of these attributes of leadership in action. They collaborated, and after seeking consensus, they took action and stood by it, showing courage, flexibility and decisiveness,too. They responded quickly and strategically and pivoted from challenges to necessary changes—and what woman hasn’t had to do this in our own lives!

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is that important that they are?

If they are not at the tables where new systems are shaped—everything from global health systems to climate justice to a new global economic model—then it won’t be a reset; it will be a repeat of past mistakes, abuses, and injustice.

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership?

This global pandemic is a big opportunity for women to step forward, support each other for leadership and to bring all our experiences, natural attributes, and shared learnings to shift the paradigm of power and lead the world from dangerous times to envision a different way forward.

Mónica Ramírez

Founder & President of Justice for Migrant Women

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

Research indicates that women leaders tend to enact policies and implement plans that support the needs of women, children and families. These policies help society overall. Most women leaders are also known for their more collaborative nature. I believe that in this moment of crisis women leaders are focused on helping as many people as possible and getting to the solutions, as opposed to being mired by politics that too often gets in the way of progress.

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is it important that they are? 

Women are at the forefront of the global reset. Women are concentrated in the jobs that have been deemed essential during this crisis, have continued to be caretakers and many have also been called upon to continue their work, while also holding a lot of the work to continue to educate their children. Women leaders have been pushing to be sure that everyone receives aid and support, from the most vulnerable worker and person in our society to the more visible. I also believe that women leaders have been encouraging people to urge all of us to think about what it means to slow down, to take care of our mental health, and to really reassess what kind of world we want to live in and create for our future.

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership?

One of the most important things that we can do to help encourage women to step up to leadership is by modeling what it looks like when women lead and to show other women that it is possible for us to assume these leadership positions and improve things. We have incredible women leaders who are making a significant impact to point to, and I am hopeful that by calling them out and highlighting their leadership this will help us mobilize more women to also seek out more leadership opportunities—whether that be in elected or appointed office or some other capacity.

Mary Robinson

First woman president of Ireland, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Chair of The Elders

I agree that women leaders have tended to fare better in coping with the COVID-19 challenge in their countries. This does not surprise me, as the women leaders concerned are serious about problem solving, listen to the science of health experts and care deeply about the health & welfare of their people. 

Not all women leaders share these characteristics, but in my experience women leaders tend to have more empathy, more understanding of discrimination, and a greater capacity to listen. When I am with other women leaders, it is striking how often the conversation turns to discussion about shortcomings, mistakes made, and other introspection. I see this as a strength, as it shows a capacity to grow and improve. 

Women leaders at all levels have been stepping up to address the COVID-19 crisis. Women workers are the majority of health and care workers, low-paid essential cleaning and other services. Women realize that the pandemic has exacerbated all the inequalities in society and made clear the intersectionality of poverty, inequality, gender, race, and marginalization. I sense that there is a growing determination that building back better must include a genuine commitment to gender equality and gender parity of decision making. I predict we will see many more Governments with an even balance of women and men. Women know how to network, and I am struck by the number of networks that are addressing the pandemic, including African women’s networks and young women. 

We had intended to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women this year, and now there is even more energy and purpose in a broad recognition that women have to be present as a critical mass in any forum where decisions are being made. It is no longer enough to have token women or exceptional women breaking a glass ceiling—the time has come to change the system itself in a way that uses all the talents available for the good of humanity. 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 

Former Republican US Representative from Florida and the first Latina elected to Congress.

As we have seen in many countries during this horrid pandemic, strong women leaders have stood out as cool, calm, and collected in the face of adversity and uncertainty. The two most obvious examples are Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. 

It has been recognized internationally that the spread of COVID-19 could have been much worse in those countries had these courageous women not taken firm control of the response and mitigation of this unrelenting virus that threatens us all. 

So it behooves us to ask: what are the traits that these two women possess that set them apart from their male counterparts? Are those traits related to gender? Can those leadership qualities be replicated by others, no matter the gender?

I would say that, although not related directly to gender, the leadership qualities exhibited by Chancellor Merkel and President Tsai should be emulated by their male counterparts. As citizens around the world were stunned as this mysterious and deadly virus took hold, these two women showed their countrymen and the international community that they both understood the science behind the spread of the virus and offered compassion to those afflicted. 

It is a difficult double whammy to be both firm and resolute in the response, yet to also show a softer, more human side. In a crisis, people want to know that their leaders fully understand the problem that is being confronted; only with that knowledge can a solution be achieved. 

With her background as a scientist, Merkel had the knowledge to deal with COVID-19, and the people of Germany knew that her education would be put to good use. She had the gravitas to earn the trust of the people as she announced lock-down measures that would otherwise not be accepted and adhered to. We have seen Merkel on our TV screens for years. Have you ever seen her agitated? Nope. As I stated at the start, she is cool, calm, and collected. That attitude assures the people that, even though the situation is dire, someone who understands the gravity of the deadly virus is in charge. 

President Tsai of Taiwan also has a strong academic pedigree and has a calm demeanor. She was a law professor, earned a PhD from the London School of Economics, was overwhelmingly re-elected as president, and was named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. Not too shabby. No bravado needed. No macho response full of bluster. 

Compared to their male counterparts, these fearless women leaders stand out. Just as Golda Meir stood out. And just as Eleanor Roosevelt stood out.

As a society, we must do more to inspire, to encourage, to nurture the future Merkels and Tsais of the global community. These women leaders of the future could very well be the solution to the next horrible pandemic that will threaten us all. We would be wise to plant that seed and help it sprout. The viability of mankind rests with them. Let’s help them find that inspiration and drive. The global community depends on them. 

Tina Tchen

President and CEO of TIME’S UP NOW

Why do you think countries that have women leaders are faring better during the pandemic? In your experience, what do women leaders bring?

What we’re seeing play out at home and on the global stage is the essential value of having racial and gender diversity at the top. Diversity in leadership leads to more innovation and resiliency—and the strong leadership we’re seeing from women around the globe during this crisis adds more evidence to that claim.

Women leaders understand better than anyone the nuances and demands of this moment– after all, they’ve lived it; from the struggle of balancing your paid job and caregiving responsibilities at home to the impossible choice many have to make between protecting their health and getting their next paycheck. And there is some research to suggest that having women in leadership positions promotes bipartisanship, equality, and stability—three key attributes for getting through this crisis stronger than we were before.

Most important, at a time when COVID-19 is exacerbating gender inequalities, these leaders have risen to the challenge by centering our most vulnerable workers—women, women of color, and workers in low-paying jobs–in our immediate relief efforts and long-term recovery efforts. That means ensuring that essential workers on the front lines, the majority of whom are women, have access to immediate and permanent paid leave, as well as other key structural supports, such as affordable child care, flexible work hours, and paid family leave, so that all women are treated with respect and dignity on the job—no exceptions.

Do you think women will be at the forefront as part of the global reset and why is it important that they are?

Without a doubt, women should lead us out of this crisis, whether as world leaders, as front-line workers, or as front-line caregivers and teachers. But our current system still has built-in barriers, and it shows: from our patchwork of paid sick and paid family leave laws to the lack of affordable childcare and the gender and racial pay gap. If there’s one good thing that can come from this, it would be if everyone—business leaders, policymakers, and the public at large—decided to build a more just and equitable society in place of the one that we have now.

As we recover and rebuild from this crisis, I hope that decision makers center the needs and voices of women, especially those most affected by this crisis. That will be how we are able to emerge from this crisis faster, stronger, and with a more fair and inclusive economy in the long run.

But we cannot assume that will happen without a fight. That’s why TIME’S UP launched the Women on the Front Lines campaign—to educate people about what is at stake for women during the COVID crisis and economic recession, highlight the stories of women on the front lines, and advocate for policies that will protect vulnerable workers—during this crisis and far into the future.

What can we do to encourage and mobilize more women to step up to leadership?

First, we need to do everything we can to support women in the workplace. As we move through this crisis, these issues of gender equity and workplace fairness aren’t just things we should do when times are good. They are essential building blocks to revitalize resilient and successful businesses and economies. We hope you’ll join TIME’S UP’s fight for safe, fair, and respectful workplaces by texting “NOW” to 306-44.

We also need to center our rebuilding efforts on women—and particularly women of color and women in low-paid work. These women faced injustices before this pandemic—and they will face them after—and likely even more so given the economic downturn ahead.

Second, we can raise awareness about the many economic benefits of diversity and inclusion for companies. The economy as a whole suffers as a result of the enormous lost potential of women and people of color who are effectively or literally chased out of jobs or whose careers stall before they rise through the ranks to positions of power. It also makes good business sense: research shows that companies with more diverse leadership make better business decisions. By extension, the same should be true for our government.

Finally, we need voters, the majority of whom are women, to support policies and candidates who will prioritize the policies that help promote women’s leadership. If millions of people show up in November, we can create real and lasting change.      

Visit COVID Gendered for more articles, information and resources. 

Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?Leading the Way, and Dare to Be You. She is also the founder of Feminist.com and What Will It Take Movements.