Leaders Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forums in 2016 and 2020 respectively. © World Economic Forum/Remy Steinegger and World Economic Forum/Boris Baldinger
Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern have been described as being gender-sensitive leaders. © World Economic Forum/Remy Steinegger and World Economic Forum/Boris Baldinger
7 July 2020

Women’s leadership - and gender-sensitive leadership - during Covid-19 and beyond: Interview with Sara Pantuliano

Author: Sara Pantuliano, Rachel George, Caroline Harper
Published by: ALIGN

Women account for more than 70% of a global health workforce that is on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19, but less than 25% of leaders in the health sector. There is growing debate, evidence and media coverage on the issue of women in leadership, with initiatives such as Women in Global Health’s Operation 50/50 advocating for change and amplifying the voices of women experts in response to the pandemic. But more evidence, knowledge and tools are needed to understand how best to support and strengthen women’s voices when a crisis hits.

Similarly, there are debates about ‘feminist’ and ‘gender-sensitive’ leadership, which anyone can display, regardless of their gender. This is leadership that values and responds to the needs of everyone, and that elevates the voices of the vulnerable: aspects of leadership that are clearly needed in pandemic response. What do these terms mean to different actors and how can feminist and gender-sensitive leadership be supported?

In June 2020, ALIGN spoke to Sara Pantuliano on her insights into women’s and gender-sensitive leadership during Covid-19 and beyond.

About Sara Pantuliano

​​​​​​​Sara PantulianoSara Pantuliano is Chief Executive at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She is a member of the High-Level Group on Humanitarian Investing and the Global Future Council on the Humanitarian System of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Managing Editor of Disasters journal, Vice-Chair of the Board of Muslim Aid and a Trustee of The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News). She also serves on the 6th Advisory Group of the UN Secretary General’s Peacebuilding Fund.

ALIGN: Research suggests that men and women sometimes exhibit different leadership traits based on their gender. Would you agree with this? Do you find that your gender influences your leadership style, and if so how?

SP: It’s not easy to put a finger on it, and it’s something I’ve been discussing with other women CEOs. I think we all instinctively feel that, as women, we do bring some particular characteristics to our leadership roles but, as you know, that’s not true for all women. Some feel that our experience as women helps us to be a certain type of leader: that our experience helps us move away from traditional male leadership models.

"Our experience as women helps us to be a certain type of leader"

But there are others in the sector and society who completely replicate patriarchal attitudes to leadership. That is what we’re trying to push against. Some of our discussions on good leadership have focused on maximising greater attention to the needs and feelings of our staff - listening more, identifying things that need deeper discussion. This has turned out to be a big part of managing this crisis [Covid-19]. It also exposes the challenges that women can face in being seen as too emotional or reacting in ways that could be seen as risky.

ALIGN: This raises a question about how girls are socialised from a young age, and how our experiences in our schools and families tend to train us to be listeners. Do you think there is a gender difference in leadership based on how boys and girls are educated and raised?

SP: I think I’ve been on a journey on this. In my career I was previously much more self-aware of being a woman and having to project ways to assert my authority. I was very uncomfortable as this didn’t really suit who I am, but I felt I needed to assert being ‘strong’ and a ‘leader’ to exercise power.

"I felt I needed to assert being ‘strong’ and a ‘leader’ to exercise power"

I felt that for a woman this was needed in a setting that was male dominated, and where I was often much younger than my peers, who were mainly senior men. In many ways, this changed only by chance when I returned from maternity leave to lead a high-profile UN response in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains – I faced a choice between being able to breastfeed and spend time with my baby or just be in 24/7 meetings at the height of the crisis. But it was a compromise, I ended up feeding my baby in non-stop meetings with senior military men, doing that impossible thing of trying to reconcile the two. In a way, this also forced me to think about how I was going to balance these things, something I hope, and certainly think the UN is better at navigating today.

ALIGN: It’s interesting to think about how different generations of women are being raised differently over time. Might there also be a difference in how men are being educated and learning over time?

SP: Yes absolutely, in how men are being educated both in the school and in the family. Even in my own family, seeing how my boys are growing up and being shaped by the external environment has been a journey with lessons. Having to actively fight against the stereotypes they absorb is a big challenge; in my case I’m lucky that both myself and my husband speak with our children actively on these issues, and it seems to be critical to encourage and enable deep conversations in the family throughout childhood.

ALIGN: Some suggest that women who achieve senior leadership roles have had to overcome many barriers and perform at the top of their game at every level, making them more qualified than those who may not have met gendered or other barriers to success. What do you think of this?

SP: Yes, part of the problem is the lack of female leaders that have been championed throughout history. For example, if you look at the arts, music, all kinds of examples of ‘success’, it has been very hard until recently to find many women. And this has created the perception that we have to be absolutely exceptional to be celebrated. As for boys, they are still given male role models, mainly, to aspire to. I think this is starting to change, but again this is a process – and in a way it’s like what's happening with Black Lives Matter, where there needs to be a recognition of the contribution made by people of colour throughout history – a recognition that just hasn’t been there. We need to revisit who we hold up as champions to give a clearer picture, in our curricula as well.

ALIGN: We do not have equal representation of society in politics. Globally, women make up less than 25% of parliamentarians and less than 10% of heads of state, but some countries have made more progress than others. How have we shifted the barriers to women’s leadership in some countries?

SP: We should celebrate the fact that some countries have made rapid progress on getting more women into parliaments and leadership positions, and we have seen some women at the helm in the response to Covid-19 who have performed much better than their male counterparts. But I think that betrays the fact that while there might be a woman at the top, this does not necessarily mean that there is equality throughout her society. I’m always a bit wary of artificial targets that might not always bring equality – in a number of the countries where I’ve worked there has been a point where quotas for women have been introduced but this hasn’t changed the dynamics.

"It’s the quality of who you have in positions of representation that is fundamental"

During the peace talks in Sudan, for example, we insisted on having women brought to the table, but again, these women were either silent or had to stick to what men asked them to say. So it goes beyond the numbers. It’s the quality of who you have in positions of representation that is fundamental. I’m a lot more interested in the deeper transformation of society. We need deeper work on curricula, education and society; in Scandinavian countries, where this was already happening, quotas were the last bit that accelerated the process, but it wasn’t an artificial, isolated number put at the top.

ALIGN: Yes, often quotas are a blunt tool, and a popular tool in attempts to amplify women’s representation but they can risk masking a need for deeper change.  Are there specific social, political and economic conditions in societies that encourage more female leadership? It seems really important to begin to identify what these might be.

SP: Yes, and I think of the example of my own history. I come from Southern Italy, which was, until not long ago, a conservative place where women’s attainment was very much lagging behind. Italy has had an incredible transformation. You know, women in Italy didn’t get the right to vote until after WWII, which is very late compared to other countries. Reforms of family law were also slow: people weren’t allowed to divorce until 1975. Where I’ve seen the change happen has been through education, which has been absolutely critical in allowing women to have a different awareness of their potential and their ability, and to provide a space outside of the family where they could grow and discuss how they could progress and change in life.

"The power of television was so important"

Even the power of television was so important, where a lot of TV programmes I saw as I was growing up came from abroad and portrayed women in a different way (showing women in power) and provided role models. And I know that was the same in Sudan, when we started seeing soaps from Lebanon or other countries where there were more progressive models for women within the Arab world. But in some cases we’re seeing that changes in women’s economic position can be difficult for men to accept; this is what we’re witnessing in Italy with the rising number of femicides (sex-based hate crime). And in Sudan, women becoming more powerful went hand-in-hand with increases in domestic and gender-based violence. So there’s a lot of thinking to be done to try to avoid this. We need to work on cultural transformation in a way that brings both sides into the transformation, which means working with men and boys as much as with women and girls.

ALIGN: Do you think addressing systemic gender discrimination based on patriarchy could also have benefits in tackling systemic discrimination against other identities and exclusionary practices?

SP:  I think the two are very much linked. Trying to create more diverse and inclusive societies cuts across everything, and I am sure that a lot of these inequalities are reinforced by power imbalances including white patriarchy. I’m sure that working on all of these diversity issues can be self-supporting in terms of opening up space in society for women and others through an intersectional feminist lens. I realise it’s difficult for white feminists to open up that space, so there has to be a dialogue to make sure there is collaboration.

"An approach to diversity that is truly inclusive should allow for all forms of diversity to feel equally safe and represented"

And there are a lot of unresolved issues that need open discussion so that women can become advocates. An approach to diversity that is truly inclusive should allow for all forms of diversity to feel equally safe and represented, but we must realise that this is not necessarily a given. This is the same for the [development] sector, not being too extractive, and not amplifying our own voices and careers on the back of others in less privileged positions. This is a really challenging, important and urgent debate for the development sector.

ALIGN: The meaning of feminist and gender-sensitive leadership, which can be demonstrated by both men and women, is sometimes debated or said to lack specificity. What do these terms mean to you?

SP: Feminist leadership is not something just for women. To me, it is about carefully thinking through who is really affected the most by the different challenges, having in the back of your mind those who don't have power and don't have voice. To me, that is what different leadership is. It's a leadership that thinks about those who don't shout the loudest, and those who are often, as in this crisis, also the worst affected. Of course, in a way that might make leadership more complex or challenging, but ultimately, I hope it generates a greater sense of buy-in and connectedness and ultimately success in an organisation or nation. It’s about recognising power hierarchies across the board.

ALIGN: What lessons have emerged so far in terms of women’s voices and leadership during the current crisis? And what new questions should we be asking in a post-Covid-19 context?

SP: Yes, we’ve certainly seen the advantages of women’s representation brought to the fore, with a number of examples during the Covid-19 pandemic. One element seems to be clarity of communications advanced by a number of women leaders who are dealing with the crisis. There are opportunities for research, for example, on how women leaders are communicating and what their messages are. Of course, the current group of women leaders will have diverse experiences and perspectives, and we should take this as a learning opportunity.

We should also take the opportunity to link the recovery to the missed opportunities to celebrate Beijing +25 and what women have achieved. Thinking ahead to the recovery, given that this anniversary year for women’s rights movements has been hit by the pandemic, we need to link the conversations, and take advantage of the global reset. We need to keep women’s rights front and centre, and use the recovery as a time to reflect on how we can continue to advance women’s rights, and link these agendas to the overall effort to make societies more just and sustainable.

This interview was conducted in June 2020 by ALIGN director Caroline Harper and researcher Rachel George.

This Q&A is part of an interview series by the Overseas Development Institute, and its Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) project, to profile and amplify the voices of feminist and gender-sensitive leaders to support more gender-equal representation in the Covid-19 response. The series aims to inform actors working on gender equality and sustainable norm change on how to support women in decision-making and ensure that their voices are heard in the crisis response, recovery and beyond.