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Women as successful crisis managers, will it impact their numbers after COVID?

Datum:21 oktober 2020
Auteur:Kyra van Hinsberg
Women as successful crisis managers, will it impact their numbers after COVID?
Women as successful crisis managers, will it impact their numbers after COVID?

The past few weeks, the great successes of female leaders during the corona pandemic have widely been commented on. With female-led countries suffering six times as few confirmed COVID-19 deaths compared to male-led countries [1], one wonders why female leaders seem to be more successful in this time of crisis; and if this will inspire organizations to promote women into power.

Research has long established the idea that women are more successful crisis managers than men, thanks to their transformational and democratic leadership styles. Transformational leaders are future-focussed, innovative, and aim for gaining followers’ trust and confidence, resulting in a very effective leadership style for crises. Men, in contrast, are more often transactional leaders that manage in the conventional sense by clarifying followers’ responsibilities and rewarding or correcting them, making them more effective leaders in stabilized situations [2].

Moreover, women often manifest a somewhat more democratic and a less autocratic leadership style, as they allow and encourage subordinates to participate in the process of decision making. This positively affects the pool of information available to the leader, something a leader can never have enough of during times of crisis. Even though leadership roles are historically associated with male stereotypes, in times of crisis leadership attributes similar to those of a ‘typical woman’ are deemed more desirable than those similar to a ‘typical man’ [3].

Surely, these aforementioned depictions of effective female leadership qualities will change the way we look at female leaders forever, you say? Sadly, the reality is that these successes of women in power are not guaranteed to result in a rise of female leaders after the COVID-19 pandemic. As described by the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon [3], women are often assigned to precarious leadership positions, such as managing in organizations at the verge of bankruptcy, because of their successful crisis management. However, desirable leadership characteristics quickly go back to stereotypical male traits when the crisis is over, resulting in a high turnover of female leaders.

Indeed, this pandemic is not the first worldwide crisis humanity has faced, and crises have not yet resulted in a surge of female leaders. Additionally, there is reason to believe that female and male leaders are held to different standards. Because of the stereotypes linked to male versus female leadership, especially women are expected to be warm and communal and take good care of the people around them [4]. However, in times of crises it is even harder to take care of every single need, and failures are prone to happen.

In my current research, I am studying the idea that women in leadership positions are punished more harshly after making mistakes compared to their male counterparts. Early data suggests that people are more outraged at women in leadership positions than men after they make mistakes, especially when the failure is of ethical nature. Together with Claudia van der Veer, I am investigating whether these type of failures resulted in higher turnover of women compared to men in Top Management Teams in Fortune 500 companies.

So, while the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the value of women in a leading positions, this does not guarantee an increase of women leadership positions in our post-COVID world. Yet, the success stories of female leaders may change how society perceives strong leadership and inspire organizations into encouraging women to step into positions of power. Understanding the difference in standards that male and female leaders are held to, and investigating the effect this has on the experiences of women in leading positions, is fundamental in empowering these women to fare well.

Kyra van Hinsberg (k.van.hinsberg is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the University of Groningen. Along with prof. dr. Jennifer Jordan, prof.dr. Janka Stoker, and prof.dr. Floor Rink, she focusses her research on the experiences of women in positions of power.


[2] Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2003). The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence. The leadership quarterly, 14(6), 807-834.

[3]  Bruckmüller, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49(3), 433-451.

[4] Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of social issues, 57(4), 743-762.