It’s the White Male Privilege, Stupid

Here’s why women are providing more effective leadership during a pandemic.

As a feminist, of course I was intrigued by an article titled, “What Do Countries With the Best Coronavirus Responses Have in Common? Women Leaders.” Writing for Forbes, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox summarized some of the actions taken by the following heads of state.

  • Angela Merkel of Germany
  • Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan
  • Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand
  • Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland
  • Sanna Marin of Finland
  • Erna Solberg of Norway
  • Mette Frederiksen of Denmark

For example:

Among the first and the fastest responses was from Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. Back in January, at the first sign of a new illness, she introduced 124 measures to block the spread without having to resort to the lockdowns that have become common elsewhere…Tsai managed what CNN has called “among the world’s best” responses, keeping the epidemic under control, still reporting only six deaths.

Jakobsdóttir is offering free coronavirus testing to everyone, ensuring that Iceland will become a case study in the spread and fatality rates of COVID-19. On the other hand, Solberg has now conducted two press conferences specifically designed to address questions and concerns about coronavirus from children. During the first one, she told them that “it’s OK to be scared.”

“Because of the coronavirus, everyday life has become very different for both adults and children. Anyone who can stay home should do it all the time. Many children find this scary,” she said.

“I understand that well. It’s OK to get a little scared when so many big things happen at once.”

Politicians in every country love to talk about the importance of children, but that is one of the few times you’ll find one actually putting those words into practice.

I couldn’t help but contrast that article with one by Natalie Baptiste titled, “Every White Guy on Facebook Is an Epidemiologist Now.”

While epidemiologists, data scientists, and other public health experts struggle to understand the new virus and inform the public, another epidemic is spreading quickly: White guys on social media who suddenly have become infectious disease experts…

This outbreak of ill-placed expertise is not unique to the pandemic. In fact, the phenomenon of people with little knowledge acting as if they should be listened to has been studied and has some robust research behind it. They are all living, tweeting, opining, over-sharing examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias described back in 1999 by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger that explains why people overestimate their knowledge and abilities.

Lest anyone think that she is unfairly targeting men, Baptiste goes on to cite research which confirms that “men often tend to have inflated opinions of themselves and often face little backlash for overconfidence.”

What are we to make of all of that? Certainly not that men are incapable of providing effective leadership during a pandemic or that there are no women with over-inflated opinions of themselves. We’ve all seen too many examples of the exceptions to swallow the idea that these traits are controlled by the number of x and y chromosomes.

Business psychologists Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop provide some answers in an article titled, “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn From Women” (emphasis mine).

Although there is a great deal of public interest in ensuring more women become leaders, thereby reversing their under-representation in the ranks of power, too many suggested solutions are founded on the misconception that women ought to emulate men. The thinking is: “If men have most of the top roles, they must be doing something right, so why not get women to act like them?”

But this logic fails to account for the relatively dismal performance of most leaders — who are overwhelmingly male. As we have argued before, the real problem is not a lack of competent females; it is too few obstacles for incompetent males, which explains the surplus of overconfident, narcissistic, and unethical people in charge.

The first lesson they discuss is particularly relevant.

Don’t lean in when you’ve got nothing to lean in about…Since there has never been a strong correlation between leaning in and being good at something — especially for men —a better option would be to stop falling for people who lean in when they lack the talents to back it up. In a logical world, we would promote people into leadership roles when they are competent rather than confident, vetting them for their expertise, track record, and relevant leadership competencies (e.g., intelligence, curiosity, empathy, integrity, and coachability).

No one demonstrates the fact that overconfident, narcissistic, and unethical men face too few obstacles than Donald Trump. But as Wittenberg-Cox notes, he’s not the only one. After discussing the effective leadership of the seven women heads of state, she writes this.

Now, compare these leaders and stories with the strongmen using the crisis to accelerate a terrifying trifecta of authoritarianism: blame-“others”, capture-the-judiciary, demonize-the-journalists, and blanket their country in I-will-never-retire darkness (Trump, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Modi, Duterte, Orban, Putin, Netanyahu…).

What this all comes down to is that the biggest obstacle to meritocracy is white male privilege. We all buy into it when we fall for the bombastic and fail to vet potential leaders based on their expertise, track record, and relevant leadership skills. That kind of vetting would not only result in more women in leadership roles, it would install the kind of obstacles that are needed to stop men like Donald Trump from gaining power and encourage more effective male leadership.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.