If only you can see how powerful women are leading us out of the pandemic this International Women’s Day

Women work

While reading a recent Forbes article entitled “Do Women Make Better Leaders In A Pandemic? Don’t Trust The Data,” I was reminded of my Anthropology 101 professor telling us that “data do not exist.” In fact, out-of-context data points have no meaning. Our brains have a fascinating ability to only see what we want to see and those usually are those facts that support our own story. It has little to do with what is evidence-based research or “factually supported” data.  Furthermore, we are usually the hero in our story, so we keep searching for data that makes us feel secure and certain of what to expect.

Nancy Doyle, the author of the Forbes article, would like us to rethink the arguments that have emerged praising the way in which women have led their countries’ responses to the pandemic brought on by the coronavirus. Whether they are presidents or prime ministers, such as  Angela Merkel in Germany, Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Norway and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and elsewhere all across the globe, people are linking the success of their country’s response to the virus with the style of these female leaders. Articles claim that they were decisive in their decisions, used scientists and brought together experts, relied on technology in innovative ways, and rallied their country’s people to believe that their quarantines and sacrifice were the right approach – and in fact their countries results were far better than those of male-led countries, be it the US or Brazil or Russia.

Instead, the counter argument highlights the differences in the geopolitical circumstances of these female-led countries; that they were able to close their borders more easily than perhaps a New York was able to do. The argument is that the success of their countries’ response to the virus was based on sother factors besides the style and credibility of the leadership.

We could debate this endlessly, but we often teach an online course entitled “Your Data is Talking to You. Can you Hear It?” because people are tone deaf to data that contradicts what they believe to be true. If you want to see what has happened as a result of borders or boundaries, you are only going to see that which conforms to your beliefs. It really doesn’t matter if the data might show a contradictory pattern. Your world view becomes a paradigm of your reality, influences the illusions you live, and becomes what is “real” in your own mind. If women had the benefit of the context in which they were fighting the pandemic, you aren’t going to recognize how they managed to create a leadership policy and voice that their country’s people embraced, followed and benefited from.

But what we have seen in recurring research studies is that women continuously rank higher than men on almost all key factors measuring leadership capabilities. Research conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman and published in Harvard Business Review in June 2019 showed that 84% of the women were seen by their managers, even by male managers, to be more effective than men in virtually every area, including IT, operations and legal, areas that are typically the male strongholds of an organization.  Women ranked high in taking initiatives, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and showing high integrity and honesty.

There may actually be more at stake here than just the biases that justify how we chose what to select and believe to be true. We used the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, a methodology developed at the University of Michigan by Professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, to assess an organization’s culture. We were interested in the types of cultures and leadership that women and men preferred.  The results startled us. With a sample of 3,000 men and 3,000 women, we found that they both wanted exactly the same types of cultures with similar leadership styles. We might have thought that the men would prefer more rules-driven hierarchical cultures and more competitive market-driven ones, while the women would be more in tune with collaborative, team-focused clan types of cultures or empowering creative ones. Instead, they both wanted what the women wanted—a focus on “we” in clan-style cooperative and team-focused cultures with a heavy preference for creative, visionary, and empowering cultures.

Perhaps we do need to refrain from the biases that cloud our interpretation of events. It may be a powerful moment to rethink why some leaders have really gotten the coronavirus under control in their countries, cities or states regardless of whether they are men or women. The leadership of collaborative cultures with a heavy focus on empowerment, a clear vision for how to manage a crisis, and a sense of “we” not “I” might have been the powerful solution exhibited by these female leaders. Men might have done the same, as Andrew Cuomo did in New York. How they lead is probably less about being male or female and more about how to ensure those following the leader believe they have their shared interests, not personal or political interests, at the heart of what they are trying to accomplish.

About Andi Simon

Andi Simon, Ph.D. (www.andisimon.com), author of the upcoming book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants (www.simonassociates.net). A trained practitioner in Blue Ocean Strategy®, Simon has conducted several hundred workshops and speeches on the topic as well as consulted with a wide range of clients across the globe. She also is the author of the award-winning book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. Simon has a successful podcast, On the Brink with Andi Simon, that has more than 125,000 monthly listeners, and is ranked among the top 20 Futurist podcasts and top 200 business podcasts. In addition, Global Advisory Experts named Simons’ firm the Corporate Anthropology Consultancy Firm of the Year in New York – 2020. She has been on Good Morning, America and Bloomberg, and is widely published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Business Week, Becker’s, and American Banker, among others. She has been a guest blogger for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Fierce Health.