Language and communication play a role in crisis situations — particularly at the highest political leadership level. But do men and women use language differently when they hold positions of power? A new study is to be investigated, and MNT spoke with its authors about the impact of their research on global health policy.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the gender imbalance in the response to COVID-19.
Journalists and scientists alike have drawn attention to the unequal representation in decision-making bodies, the social impact that disproportionately affects women or presents unique challenges for transgender people, and the increased impact on other marginalized groups.
In this context, a team of researchers set out to analyse another interesting aspect of COVID-19 policy from a gender perspective: political discourse.
Sara Dada from the Vayu Global Health Foundation, Boston, MA, is the corresponding author of the study.
Other authors of the paper include:
- Henry Ashworth, an MD candidate from Harvard Medical School in Boston
- Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa, MD, MPH, research assistant at the University of South Florida College of Public Health in Tampa and Interim Board Chair for Women in Global Health in Washington, DC
- Dr. Roopa Dhatt, CEO of Women in Global Health
The study, which has now been published in the journal BMJ Global Health, conducted a “political and gender-specific analysis of speeches made by government leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dada, the corresponding author, and her colleagues analyzed 122 speeches on COVID-19 delivered by 20 executives, 10 of whom were men and 10 women.
The heads of state and government were heads of government from the following countries: Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Scotland, Sint Maarten, Great Britain, USA and Taiwan.
Using a deductive analytical approach, the authors coded speeches for specific topics based on the language that managers used and the content they discussed in their speeches.
The research revealed five different topics in all speeches:
- economy and financial relief, social care and
- vulnerable populations
- Responsibility and Paternalism
- emotional appeals
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Fear-based tactic vs. social unity
The study found that although all leaders spoke about the economic impact of the pandemic, “female leaders were more likely to talk about the impact at the local or individual level.”
In addition, female leaders were more likely to describe “a wider range of social services,” such as those that address “mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence.”
Finally, “both men and women from environments with fewer resources described detailed financial relief and social assistance that would impact the majority of their citizens.”
“While 17 of the 20 leaders used war metaphors to describe the COVID-19 virus and response, men mostly used them with greater scope and frequency,” the authors report.
MNT spoke to the study authors about their findings.
MNT: Were you surprised by your results?
Sara Dada: While we expected some differences, we were surprised how stark the differences were when it came to how men and women generated emotional engagement.
In general, men relied more on fear-based tactics, either using war rhetoric or blame more frequently, while women tended to emphasize more social unity through personal examples and appeals for compassion. It was also interesting to see how government leaders differed in the types of responses and initiatives they prioritized — for example, only female leaders announced initiatives to combat domestic violence.
MNT: What are the implications of your research? Are there any public policies that you would like to see as a result of these results?
Sara Dada: The implication of our work is that communication is important. Each country has responded to the pandemic in different ways, led by different approaches and leadership styles.
While it’s important to recognize differences in societies and cultural preferences that can influence the leadership of different countries, we highlight how the language surrounding the pandemic differs between these leaders and ask questions about what that means in the long term.
We know that public leadership and trust are essential to respond to a health emergency, and the way government leaders communicate with their citizens influences that trust and therefore the future uptake of interventions.
short term, we would appreciate more work and attention in this relationship to improve the overall response to a pandemic.
long term, we currently have a very small pool of female heads of government that we even need to take into account in such analyses, but we see that there can be differences between men and women.
That is why we are committed to fairer and fairer leadership that also represents the interests of all citizens.
“Global health security depends on women”
Dr. Roopa Dhatt: In Women and Global Health, our mantra is that global health security is based on women.
We are calling for a new social contract for women in healthcare that recognizes and values their contribution. The contribution that women have made has not given them the same say in COVID-19 decisions. They remain in the minority of COVID-19 task forces, which are expected to operate health systems, while men make decisions that impact our overall health and lives
However, it was found that the results are positive when women make decisions — COVID-19 deaths in women-led countries were six times lower than in countries led by men.
Henry Ashworth: An important finding from this analysis is the influence of toxic masculinity on the language used and priorities of male managers and how this is manifested in fear-based approaches to influencing public opinion.
Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa: This study is one of the first to focus on a gender perspective with regard to the communication and leadership style of decision makers during the COVID-19 response.
It is clear that women communicated differently and responded to the pandemic from an equitable perspective, with inclusive policy responses that included health, economic and social measures and left no one behind.
Through its programs, including the COVID 50/50 campaign and WGH 5 ASKS, Women in Global Health is committed to ensuring that women are effectively positioned to play a leading role at all levels of decision making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, recovering, and building stronger healthcare systems.
Editor’s note: Women in Global Health has asked five questions about gender equality in global health:
- Equal representation of women in global health security decision-making bodies.
- Safe and decent working conditions for women healthcare workers.
- Recognizing the value of unpaid women’s health work.
- Gender-oriented approaches to health security.
- Well-financed women’s movements and organizations.
MNT: What are some of the strengths and limitations of your studies?
Sara Dada: In terms of restrictions, the pandemic is far from over, and managers’ approaches may continue to change over time. This study does not attempt to link executive communication styles with a country’s success in responding to COVID-19 and recognizes that communication is just one component of leadership.
Second, the number of female managers worldwide is unfortunately low. Only 24% of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and only 17 women hold a position as head of government. We cannot comprehensively analyse the differences in leadership styles and approaches between men and women if the sample is so biased.
On the other hand, our study was carried out using a strict methodology and comprised a total of 120 presentations in 20 countries. We had two independent researchers review and analyse each speech and found a high consistency rate.
Another strength is that it is the first study known to us that takes such an in-depth look at the specific language and rhetoric that leaders are using regarding COVID-19 in 2020. We hope that this emphasis on communication will inspire additional work and attention to the importance of communication in the pandemic response.