1. What traits do women bring to leadership that men usually do not?

There are three aspects of leadership that women bring to leadership: empathy, pragmatism, and multitasking.  Based on what we have seen in the pandemic, women have the ability to be empathetic and understand the human cost of suffering.  They understand that action taken needs to be based both on a very pragmatic understanding of the issues at hand and empathy for what the victims of the public health crisis are going through.  Women craft solutions that work and are based on a no-nonsense way of just getting things done; converting the ability to solve problems day-to-day into the ability to solve problems at a national scale.  Next is multitasking.  Women have three times the care burden that men do even before the pandemic, so we are always used to juggling multiple activities both at home and in the workplace.  Work is not the only employment for women.  This ability to multitask and drive results and impact in different areas translates into more powerful leadership

2. From your vantage point as Deputy Executive Director and Assistant-Secretary-General at UN Women, what role have these traits played in the response to the COVID-19 crisis?

If you look at the example of New Zealand, you see the ability to make decisions on a very pragmatic basis, such as the tough decision to lock down the country, because the leadership realized that if they did that, there could be a disproportionately positive impact on the public health outcomes. That is why you saw such a remarkably low rate of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand.  So, that’s the pragmatic approach.  But also, when you heard Jacinda Arden speak, she always spoke so empathetically about what was going on. You would see her with her baby. She gets it, from personal experience. She epitomizes empathetic leadership that is needed for difficult crises like this. We have just seen the example of the head of KPMG in England, who told his staff to stop complaining and take it in stride, which was exactly the opposite of what was needed at a moment like this.  This is such a stressful situation for people – even if they don’t have to deal with the illness, they are still dealing with the mental health effects of lockdown. So, you absolutely need to show that empathy versus that ‘buckle up and get on with it’ leadership in a situation like this.  So, I think Jacinda Arden really epitomized that leadership style, while I think Angela Merkel also epitomized pragmatism and multitasking. Well, I think all of them did really because all women multitask!

3. In terms of your organization (UN Women), how did you adapt to lockdown? Is there anything from these adaptations that you think we should take into the post-COVID world?

First, how people have responded depends on where you sit.  What COVID has done is divide the world into women who have care burdens and women who do not have care burdens. For women who have care burdens, life actually became a lot harder because their care burden really escalated during the crisis. The silver lining of this is that the issue of care has now become a part of the public conversation when it never really was before.  Hopefully, we are at a point where there can be a tipping point in terms of public policy attention to an issue that has always been considered a personal issue.  So it has transformed from a personal issue into a real public policy issue, because what is happening is the care burden is preventing women from going back to work. Because it is preventing women from going back to work, there will be an impact on female labor force participation, on the size of GDP, on productivity, on the economy, on society, etc. 

Second, the pandemic has underscored the need for investment in digital infrastructure, because the pandemic has also divided people who have access to digital and people who do not. So, you are seeing this impact in terms of girls who have access to education, in terms of access to schooling, in terms of the ability to work. So those in the knowledge economy, can succeed post-pandemic if you have digital access. If not, if for example you worked in a call center which is now locked down, you have now lost a job. So, I think it’s highlighted this tension also. So, what we can take going into the future is that: (1) we have to pay more attention to the issue of care burden; (2) we have to pay more attention to the issue of digitalization and (3), the pandemic showed that we are globally connected community.

So, something that happened in China, that started in China affected life here. This was a lesson that everybody saw.  I think everybody realized that we only have one planet that relies on us cooperating. Unfortunately, we are not seeing this cooperation right now in the vaccine rollout, but I think we can take from this the need for understanding the global interconnectedness.  But also, the pandemic allowed for people who previously had crazy lives to slow down a little bit and really reflect on the fact that so much work can actually be done remotely—maybe you don’t have to travel, maybe you can reduce your carbon footprint. I think it allowed people to stop and breathe and look at nature.  To be very clear, these are people in positions of privilege. These people can now understand that there’s no “Planet B” so you have to take care of “Planet A” because it’s all we have.  It also showed the world just how much inequality there is because outcomes have been very different depending on class, color, country, etc. The inequality that was shown through COVID-19 is something that we should take into the future as another issue to solve.

4. How do you think we should use this new awareness to build better systems going forward?

The first step is recognizing that women have carried the world on their shoulders during the pandemic.

Second, the stimulus packages which are being rolled out by governments to respond to the crisis must put the care economy at the heart of the packages.  This means that there have to be: (1) tax credits for families with care burdens, (2) subsidies for childcare providers (which we have seen in the Biden packages), (3) unemployment insurance because in countries where insurance is linked to employment, there should be unemployment insurance, otherwise women fall through the cracks, and (4) there should be recognition of the number of households headed by single mothers and arrangements accordingly.  Next, in the current phase, we have to find ways to get children back into school, which means vaccinations for teachers, hiring more teachers, investing in infrastructures so schools can be safe, and not forgetting that the virus is still here, and it could be a ‘long COVID.’  This ‘long COVID’ period means that if we want women to go back to work, we have to make it easier for them to do that by addressing these issues. This is not just a job for governments now, but also for businesses. Businesses have to recognize these issues and invest if they want their employees to be able to come back to work; they have to provide childcare facilities so that women can either bring their children to work or be paid to have somebody help them with childcare. That very explicit recognition of the care burden is the first phase, and then there is a range of public policies needed including the ones I mentioned.

5. Violence against women is something that is so underreported already. What has UN Women done in terms of trying to gauge the effect of the pandemic and lockdown on domestic violence against women?

Absolutely. UN Women is connected to so many women’s rights organizations all over the world, at the grassroots level we have been getting evidence since the pandemic started of how big an issue this is.  Basically, the phones started ringing off the hook in centers all over the world. I think again, the silver lining is that this became a matter of public discourse in a way that it had not been before because the rise was so high and so visible during the pandemic. So, something that we knew existed, something that was underreported, suddenly became visible. The pandemic has shown a light on this horrible thing that actually had been there all along. We did a lot of surveys around the world to understand the rise in violence and I can tell you a few things.

  • It was all over the world. There was no part of the world where you did not see it.
  • You saw for the first time that governments had to come out and speak about this. You saw Scott Morrison in Australia saying that there has been a rise in the number of Google searches on violence because women had to turn to Google to find out what to do. The government in France had to rent 20,000 hotel rooms for women who needed to leave their house and had nowhere to go. Then in certain places, like Ottawa, they declared shelters to be essential services and kept them open.  But the policy response was highly variable.  The SG issued a call for a ceasefire at home, saying that home is the place where you can expect to be safe, but actually, this is where you are not safe.  He called it the “Shadow Pandemic.”  So, UN Women, through the policy briefs that we published, through the SG’s called for the ceasefire at home, through our work to help countries understand the extent of the Shadow Pandemic, we are putting a spotlight on the degree to which this had become such a big problem during the pandemic.

6. The Biden Administration has pledged to start a gender policy council.  How do you think UN Women could help the council to better their work and bring about change in the US?

What the gender policy council is set up to do is very similar to us in the UN system, meaning there is a vertical which is this organization whose job is to raise all of these issues, then there is a horizontal job which is to make sure everybody in government is thinking about gender—whether it is transportation, health, infrastructure, climate, etc., they are thinking of women. I think we have a lot to offer them because, for example, they want to see work done on gender-based violence: we have a huge amount of experience on this topic and can help them realize what a national plan should look like. They want to improve workplace policies for female employees. Again, that is something we have worked on a great deal and understand the issues that employers have to address because we have a lot of alliances with the private sector. Then, this issue of thinking about the stimulus packages. We have been working with all the IFI’s to bring attention to this issue that all stimulus packages must focus on women. There is already commonality of issues, so we can absolutely help them by sharing global experience and showing what we know works and does not work, from other countries that can be copied here.  This is the first time that we seen such attn to women’s issues, but there are other countries that have been doing some things longer than the US, so the US can learn from their experiences.