Cecilia Robinson: What Covid can teach us about female leadership


In 1999, New Zealand had a female Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Opposition leader. The chief executive of our largest company at the time (Telecom) was also female.

Having been born and raised in Sweden, which is globally renowned for its female empowerment, it seems a real juxtaposition that Sweden has yet to have a female Prime Minister.

However, for New Zealand, we again find ourselves in basically the same position with women across the same powerful positions 20 years later.

Having females lead our political landscape not once, but twice, probably makes us unique in the world.

But the fact that this is unique also demonstrates how far we still have to go.

Female leadership should be the norm, well- at least 50 per cent of the time. After all we make up half the world’s population and have grown up with the ethos that girls can do anything.

Unfortunately, it is not.

Less than 30 per cent of New Zealand’s board directors are women and a shocking one in five companies listed on the NZX have no women on their boards.

Worse, only 20 per cent of senior managers in New Zealand are female. This places New Zealand as one of the lowest-ranked countries worldwide for women in senior leadership.

And we continue to have an entrenched gender pay gap. Though reducing in the late 20th century, the gap between males and females remains stubbornly high and progress has stalled.

Yet, Covid has clearly demonstrated the benefits of strong female leadership but also potentially served to widen the gap with many global surveys showing that women in work are particularly badly hit by Covid.

Few would disagree that Jacinda Ardern has done an outstanding job steering New Zealand through the pandemic.

The comparison to Sweden is incredibly relevant. On the other side of the globe, we have seen a leadership vacuum and again soaring Covid numbers with deaths snowballing and a public outcry over the past weeks. Yet the Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, has been surprisingly quiet.

Ardern’s clear communication, empathy and decisive action are all hallmarks of her leadership approach, and New Zealanders have responded overwhelmingly by supporting her approach through the ballot box.

Sweden, on the other hand, has been on the brink of a political coup.

However, when it comes to Covid, it’s not only New Zealand that has performed well.

Taiwan, Finland, Germany, Denmark and Iceland are all leading the world when it comes to managing the pandemic.

And what do they all have in common? Their leaders are female.

Yes, there are countries with male leaders who have done well. But almost no country with a female leader has managed the pandemic poorly.

Why is this the case?

Research tells us female leaders tend to be more democratic and encouraging of participation. In contrast, males tend to be more autocratic with a focus on performance.

Female leaders also tend to be more relational in their decision-making – they consider how their decisions will affect other people and how their decisions will manifest in the real world.

These are, of course, generalisations.

There are plenty of male leaders who take a democratic approach and actively encourage participation, while many female leaders can have autocratic tendencies.

We need only think of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.

But overall, research suggests these relational traits are more common amongst female leaders.

And we have seen it demonstrated in how female political leaders have responded to Covid this year.

They have acted quickly, taking decisive action.

They have demonstrated a willingness to listen and act on the advice of experts. They have put people first, demonstrated humility and have been effective and empathetic communicators.

This approach has enabled them to build consensus rather than the division we have seen in some countries.

It is a leadership style that we should be celebrating, rather than the old-fashioned view of leadership being authoritative and abrasive.

Yes, different situations required different approaches, but we need more leaders who are empathetic, consensus-building and decisive.

And this means helping cultivate the next generation of female leaders. Not only at a political level, but also within corporate New Zealand.

The economic case to do so is strong.

McKinsey’s report Delivering Through Diversity, published in 2018, found that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive team were 21 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the 4th quartile.


Diversity helps prevent groupthink. It brings different skills and experiences together and encourages innovation by creating diversity in thought leadership. These are things every business would benefit from.

That is why we need to address the barriers that prevent females from decision making and leadership roles.

We have talked about doing it for years, but progress has been painfully slow.

While I have always been pro meritocracy, the problem remains, simply put, that women are not being invited around the board table.

We need to capitalise on the leadership we have evidenced in this space and seriously consider listed companies to mandate the number of female spaces around a board table.

If we do this, I hope young women will not have to wait another 20 years before women again dominate New Zealand’s political landscape.

As for Sweden, unfortunately the current outlook continues to be the same with very little progress towards real equity at a leadership level.

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