Gender, Leadership and Representative Democracy

The Differential Impacts of the Global Pandemic

in Democratic Theory
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  • 1 University of Canberra, Australia
  • 2 University of Canberra, Australia
  • 3 University of Canberra, Australia


That effective leadership is crucial during global emergencies is uncontested. However what that leadership looks like, and how it plays out in different contexts is less straightforward. In representative democracy, diversity is considered to be a key element for true representation of the society. In addition, previous research has unequivocally demonstrated the positive impacts of gender equality in leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the real world implications of gender inequalities in the leadership context. In this article, we examine the differential impacts of COVID-19 on women, and reflect on potential pathways for women's active participation.


The need for effective leadership is heightened during times of national crisis. What is more, the impact and effect of that leadership is not only in the capacity to make wise decisions, but also in the consequences for the democratic underpinnings of the decision-making process. Who gets to be a leader is critical to the explicit representation of interests, the leadership characteristics that are brought to bear and the model that this sets across society for democratic participation. These factors profoundly affect levels of trust in public decision making. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a useful framework to reflect on how the leadership “picture” literally looks and the place of gender in thinking about the underpinnings of representative democracy more broadly.

This short article focuses on the contributions of women as representatives in and leaders of government as well as representations of women as leaders. It builds on an argument that gender is relevant to representation, and the under-representation of women in government makes the system unrepresentative (Cass and Rubenstein 1995). Moreover, the significantly low number, indeed in many countries, of women as leaders undermines the democratic nature of decision making in those countries. Gender is relevant to representation for a range of reasons, including the difference between interests of men and women. This is played out at present by the different ways in which COVID-19 has impacted women compared to men (Haddad 2020). In the context of this continued injustice of exclusion (women make up over 50 percent of many countries), we consider some pathways for addressing the issue. In doing so, we argue that both the structural measures—increasing women's representation in democratic institutions—as well as citizen-led advocacy work in policy development, play a vital role in strengthening the validity of democratic systems as a whole.

The Differential Impact of COVID-19 on Women

There are clear gendered implications of COVID-19 that have been highlighted in the analysis so far both in Australia (Haddad 2020) and globally (OHCHR 2020). The nature of these implications varies greatly, and as the pandemic evolves the situation changes rapidly. As of May 2020, Australia's Workplace Gender Equity Agency (WGEA) has identified a number of direct impacts to women in their workforce participation, in terms of actual job losses and the reduction in paid employment hours, as well as an increase in unpaid labor hours, such as caring for others, and being at an increased risk for domestic violence (WGEA 2020). These in turn can have far reaching negative ramifications on women's economic opportunities. Preliminary results from the authors’ research on unpaid labor during COVID-19 also shows a clear gendered difference in the way in which household tasks and caring duties such as homeschooling are organized during home-centered isolation. Australian women are far more likely than men to shoulder the burden not only in the actual hours worked, but also in the form of emotional labor (Rowe and Rubenstein, forthcoming).

A significant part of the problem stems from the gender segregated workforce in Australia, as well as the unequal division of both unpaid and paid labor. For example, women disproportionately bear the responsibility for “holding societies together,” in the home, in healthcare, at school, or in caring for the elderly (ABS 2020a). In many countries, this is unpaid work and even when the work is carried out by paid workers, they tend to be women, and are largely paid less than in male-dominated professions (UN Women, n.d.). Consequently, women form a large group within those experiencing poverty and hardship, both from their existing disadvantaged position, and amplified during the COVID-19 period stemming from loss of income with COVID-19's impact on the labor market. In Australia, in the first seven weeks of the shutdown period, more women than men lost their jobs (ABS 2020b).

Another area in which COVID-19 has impacted upon women is in the context of violence, and specifically domestic violence, which has increased as a result of social isolation (Abramson 2020). The need for social distancing and the imposed requirements of quarantine including stay-at-home measures, has meant that women and children who live with violent and controlling men are exposed to considerably greater danger. Further, the majority of people on the front lines of the pandemic are women, because women represent 70 percent of all health and social-services staff globally (ILO 2020). These women will also require more resources, particularly for those who also assume primary responsibility for household work.

These examples do not represent the full extent of the differential impact or the COVID-19 crisis on women but they serve to remind us that when policy makers develop their responses to the crisis and think about how to lead effectively post COVID-19 they must take into account the needs of different groups within the community. As such, when parliament comes to legislate around these very issues, the differential impact on people by gender and other categories such as age, ethnicity, class, and sexuality are all considerations that must be taken into account. Doing so is not only imperative for addressing the existing gender inequalities and improving the lives of women, but also for the validity of the representative democracy as a whole. If the institution that governs the society fails to reflect the diversity of its constituents, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to meet the needs and interests of specific groups and individuals.1

The lack of equal numbers of women in positions of policy development and public leadership presently may account for why the national and global response has not comprehensively paid attention to the differential impacts on the broad spectrum of women. Most recently, this was observed in the Australian federal government's decision to discontinue the free childcare arrangement despite all the evidence of its crucial role in the economic recovery post-COVID-19 (Hayne 2020). In addition, the childcare sector—which consists of 95 percent women—is also the first sector to be taken off the JobKeeper scheme ahead of the announced end date of September 27 (DESE 2020). This again demonstrates the disproportionate impact the government's decision-making can have on women.

Gender and Representative Democracy

Why should the lack of gender equality in political leadership matter to democratic theory? There are two significant reasons. The first relates to the health of our democracy and the breadth of our understanding of representation and leadership. Women make up (slightly more than) 50 percent of the population, and as a matter of justice and equity, those women need to be equally represented in our parliamentary chambers, because one's life experience as a woman (including its intersections with race/sexuality/class/ethnicity) is relevant to that representation.

Globally, equal representation still remains a distant goal, with women making up only 24.3 percent of national parliamentarians (IPU 2020), while only three countries out of the 193 members of the United Nations members—Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia—have achieved a 50/50 gender balance in parliament (UN Women 2019). In Australia, men outnumber women by 105 to just 46 in the House of Representatives, its most powerful governing body (APH 2020).

Anne Phillips (1991: 62) argues that it is unjust to exclude women from political life, just as it is unjust that they should be “typists but not directors.” However, the exclusion is not simply a question of “fairness,” but rather signals a fundamental issue within the democratic systems themselves. As Drude Dahlerup (2018) asks: “Can one honestly speak of democracy if women and minorities are excluded, even if the procedures followed among privileged men in the polity fulfil all the noble criteria of fair elections, deliberation and rotation of positions?”

Imagining a reversal of the gender balance emphasizes Phillips’ (1991) rhetorical question about the British system of representative democracy: “What would men think of a system of political representation in which they were outnumbered nineteen to one?” This argument implicitly rejects the proposition that formal access to politics is sufficient to ensure equality for women. Opponents of increasing representation for groups not physically present in decision-making assemblies have rejected this. They would argue that not being there does matter, but as these groups are not being physically prevented from being there, there are no obstacles to their presence which cannot be overcome by reforms aimed at achieving equality of opportunity. This argument fails to accept that there is a difference between formal equality and substantive equality. As Professor Hilary Charlesworth (1994) points out, “[lnstitutional] practices may not directly discriminate against women, but they can effectively inhibit women's participation by relying on norms reflecting male life patterns as benchmarks of eligibility or success.”

The issue of representation becomes even more significant in a crisis context. We must ask how we can attempt to respond to the huge unknown policy and logistical challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing at the community, while effectively excluding half of the population from key decision making. Certainly, we need the experts in infectious disease to be central to decision making (and there are many women in these fields) but we also need the diverse population to be reflected to ensure that varied life experiences are taken into account with the impact of the decisions flowing from that expert advice.

Representations of Leadership during the Crisis

Throughout the globe, the disproportionate composition of leadership and decision-making bodies during this pandemic have been highlighted. In the USA only 2 of the 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force are women: Dr. Deborah Birx and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This is replicated around the world, with only 10 women of the 31 members and advisers of the World Health Organization (WHO's) Emergency Committee on COVID-19, and of the 25 members of the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, only 20 percent are women. In Australia, the imagery of leadership during the crisis has largely been homogeneously white and male. The chief repeated image in the early period around the national response to COVID-19 was of three men. Gathered in front of TV cameras, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Brendan Murphy were the public faces of the crisis engulfing Australia and the world. In addition, the Australian Prime Minister announced a COVID-19 Coordination Commission, the purpose of which is to coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Its aim is to “better coordinate the efforts within and between the public and private sectors” and is advising the prime minister on all non-health aspects of the pandemic response, working in tandem with the CMO.

As of June 2020, the board membership consists of 6 men and only 2 women: Jane Halton AO PSM, (former Secretary of Departments of Finance and Health) and Catherine Tanna (Energy Australia). While each of those people have their own areas of work and have created further committees to advise them, on which women are also being included, this disproportionate representation of women on the COVID-19 Commission sits in stark contradiction of the Australian government's policy commitment to a gender diversity target of women holding 50 percent of government board positions overall, and women and men each holding at least 40 percent of positions at the individual board level. This took effect from July 1, 2016. Such a policy, if it is worth having, should apply at all times. Particularly in times of crisis, when every sector of the community is affected by the decisions this Commission will make.

But the other interesting insight from analyzing global differences regarding the management of the COVID-19 crisis, is that those countries led by women are largely doing far better. In Europe, Angela Merkel in Germany has had a lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy, or Spain. In Scandinavia, Finland's prime minister Sanna Marin, 34, who is notable not only around gender but also as a young woman, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10 percent as many deaths as nearby Sweden. And the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has led the most successful example in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown (Taub 2020). This is not a biological argument positing that women are better at leadership but, rather, it reflects a style of leadership different from the stereotypical male model. As Kristine Ziwica (2020) argues: “it's not that women are necessarily ‘better’ than men … It's that we have a real problem with stereotypically ‘male’ styles of leadership, which we, as a culture, have traditionally held up as the gold standard of leadership.” Two things ought to be highlighted here: the countries that so far have effectively handled the COVID-19 crisis are not only led by women, with a leadership style driven by supposedly feminine qualities of empathy, compassion, listening, and collaboration, but overall in these ecosystems, they have demonstrated egalitarian values across all levels of society (Champoux-Paillé and Croteau, 2020).

As an example of these qualities, in the USA it has been instructive to see the mix of calm authority and empathy that Deborah Birx, the White House's Coronavirus Taskforce Coordinator, has brought to Donald Trump's daily media briefings. Even more fascinating are her facial contortions as she watches Mr. Trump ad lib his way through media questioning. Meanwhile, the moving footage of Dr. Emily Landon, chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine taking to the stand with a seven-minute speech that went viral is a reminder of the power of speech when a woman's multifaceted range of communication skills are deployed. Dr. Landon's layered delivery weaves expertise, integrity, authority, and compassion in a way rarely seen. This serves as a reminder that we need to see and hear from more women experts, who are non-political, non-partisan, and whose words the community will be more inclined to trust, but it is also an impetus for having a range of styles of leadership overall, as it encourages a more inclusive form of participation in our society as a whole.


How can we move forward and benefit from these insights that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and amplified for women and for a more inclusive and representative democracy? Australia followed the lead of New Zealand in setting up an accountability framework for parliament to keep a check over the government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and established an Australian version. These parliamentary mechanisms may be a frame for improving or at least highlighting the links between gender and representation. In Australia, the authors have been part of a Snap Forward Feminist Policy Network (SFN) convened by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, representing a collaboration of academics and researchers in conjunction with a national network of women advocates, policy consultants, and gender equality organizations. The SFN put 10 recommendations to parliament (SFN 2020) including, for instance, the critical importance of gender budgeting. They recommended that politicians, in their ongoing responses to COVID-19, apply a gender lens to the billions in fiscal stimulus to recognize and respond to the fact that women and men may have different needs in managing this crisis.

Parliament itself needs to pay more attention to gender. As Marian Sawer (2020) has written, excellent work has been undertaken around gender-mandated parliamentary bodies as a form of feminist institution-building. “Separate institution-building has long been recognized as an important element in collective mobilization and feminist claims-making.” Feminist institution-building within parliament, Sawer argues, can be powerful in providing a means of affirming and maintaining feminist perspectives and collectivity in the face of dominant organizational cultures and identities. It can also provide a space for naming workplace experience as well as providing a mandate and legitimacy for feminist claims-making on behalf of broader constituencies. UN Women has also released a “primer for parliamentary action” highlighting practical ways Members of Parliament (MPs) and parliamentary staff can take action to ensure COVID-19 response and recovery decision making addresses women's needs (Childs and Palmieri 2020).2 It is informed by the differential impacts of the disease on women as documented to date, and the common needs and challenges expressed by MPs and parliamentary staff adapting to new priorities and ways of working around the world.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 experience has amplified the unacceptable gender imbalance in representation and leadership. Many countries’ national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic should give us pause to think about power and authority, about decision making and rule setting, and whether women's very specific needs are being taken into account. It is essential to encourage more women to become active citizens and be involved in the decision making at all levels, and for men and women to review the institutional frameworks for decision making broadly, and pay more attention and affirm varying styles of leadership both at times of crisis and beyond. This can only lead to a healthier outcome for gender and democracy, as well as a return to health in society more broadly, post COVID-19.


In Australia, a collaboration of academics and researchers from the University of Canberra, the Australian National University, University of Sydney, and the University of Melbourne, in conjunction with a national network of women advocates, policy consultants and gender equality organizations, prepared a submission for the Australian Parliament's Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 to recommend policy and legislative ways forward that take into account this issues, and it was endorsed by over 60 prominent individuals/and or organizations. See:


Sarah Childs and Sonia Palmieri, UN Women ‘Gender-Sensitive Responses to COVID-19’


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Contributor Notes

Kim Rubenstein is professor and co-director (academic) of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, Faculty of Business, Government and Law. ORCID: E-mail:

Trish Bergin is co-director (governance) of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, Faculty of Business, Government and Law. E-mail:

Pia Rowe is a research fellow with the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, Faculty of Business, Government and Law. E-mail:

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