Are women leaders or those with science backgrounds better at tackling the pandemic?

Research by Joachim Wehner and Mark Hallerberg show such generalisations may be a red herring.

Were leaders with a science background better at tackling the COVID-19, as some public commentators have speculated? Some have concluded that leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry, had a better grasp of the pandemic’s implications and thus were quicker to react. New research by Joachim Wehner of the London School of Economics and Hertie School Professor of Public Management and Political Economy Mark Hallerberg shows that such generalisations should be approached with caution.

Over the last year and a half since COVID-19 took hold around the world, the success of different countries’ policies and their leadership have been closely scrutinised – by the media, by policymakers grappling with the pandemic, by scientists studying its course and others. In their article, “Pandemic Leadership: Did ‘Scientists’ Lock Down More Quickly?”, Wehner and Hallerberg detail their research on underlying mechanisms that might contribute to this success and the extent to which they correlate with the educational background of leaders. However, they find no link between the speed of the first lockdown after the outbreak of COVID-19, and leaders with a “science” background.

Using a global dataset of the educational background of 188 leaders in office at the start of the pandemic and several statistical tests, the authors say they found “no support for a systematic relationship between a leader having studied a natural science or medicine and the timing of the first lockdown.” They also tested whether gender and populism played a role in the timing, connections that commentators have also drawn, but found no systematic effects.

“We caution against generalisations based on a small number of high-profile anecdotes about how certain leadership traits translate into different policy responses during the pandemic,” Wehner and Hallerberg write.

Their study included all United Nations member countries with identifiable leaders in January 2020 and coded whether they were led by a man or a woman. They identified “populists“ based on a list complied in 2020 by researchers Jordan Kyle and Brett Meyer. They also used the International Standard Classification of Education developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1997), and collected detailed education data for 185 leaders.

Of the 169 leaders of countries for which they had COVID-19 response data, 13 were women, and 17 were considered populists, while 15 leaders qualified as “scientists“ for the purpose of their analysis.

Find a more extensive summary of their findings on the LSE blog here.

Find the full paper here.


Photo credit: Bundesregierung/Kugler