Almost immediately on the outbreak of COVID-19 and the world-wide spread of the coronavirus that causes it, research on how gender matters began.
It appeared that men had a higher death rate from Covid-19 than women and were more likely to develop a severe illness. Why would men be more at risk?
Possibilities that involve their behavior include higher rate of smoking and less attention to washing hands. Most of the touted reasons were about chromosomes and hormones. The theory used to explain men’s higher risk is that women have two X chromosomes which carry 2,000 genes that interact with women’s cells. Cells can use genes on one X chromosome to destroy invading viruses, and genes on the other X chromosome to kill infected cells. Also, XX chromosomes produce estrogens which stimulate immunological responses, while testosterone seems to suppress them. The protective effect of estrogens led to trials of administering estrogen to men and post-menopausal women with COVID-19 as possible means to lessen the severity of the illness.
An entirely different set of research studies focus on the effects of the lockdown that keep workers home and school closings that keep children at home. Employers had to adopt flexible work schedules and telecommuting for men and women employees, a policy for which many women have long fought for.
Another result of the lockdown is the availability of fathers for child care and home schooling. Where mothers work outside the home, as medical providers or grocery and pharmacy employees, fathers have to became the main child caregivers.
Reports on sharing housework and child care by heterosexual cohabiting partners working from home were mixed. In one study men partners claimed to be doing half the home-schooling while women with heterosexual partners claimed that they were doing 80 percent.
Another study of 1060 heterosexual couples on their early COVID-19 experiences found an increase in sharing housework from 26 percent to 41 percent; similar results were reported for shared care of children. If men really do more during the shelter at home months, the continuance of such behavior would be a positive outcome of the pandemic.
A serendipitous gender effect was that women were in the leadership role in countries that most successfully combated the coronavirus. The eight countries with the best outcomes of controlling cases and deaths thus far all had women leaders who acted early and decisively: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hong Kong, Namibia, Nepal and Singapore. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, also led strong and successful responses to the virus. There are other countries governed by women that have not controlled the coronavirus so well. What was different about the more successful women leaders? A comparison of the two groups of women leaders might indicate what leadership skills mattered in this crisis. Leadership styles are often culturally gendered. Men leaders are prone to using war metaphors with the coronavirus as the enemy to be attacked aggressively and vanquished. The more successful women leaders focused on communal efforts and careful planning that demanded shared long-term sacrifice, a leadership style that is considered “feminine.”
We need more research to understand what leadership style works in national emergencies such as pandemics. Comparisons need to be made within gender as well as between them. Women leaders are not all alike, nor do they all use what is culturally considered a more consensus or “feminine” leadership style. More importantly, men too can adopt “feminine” leadership styles if that is what research tells us what most efficacious at keeping us all alive.
Adapted from The New Gender Paradox: Fragmentation and Persistence of the Gender Binary, Polity Books, forthcoming.
Judith Lorber is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School, CUNY. She is the author of Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics, Paradoxes of Gender, and Women Physicians: Careers, Status and Power. With Lisa Jean Moore, she is the author of Gendered Bodies: Feminist Perspectives and Gender and the Social Construction of Illness. Judith Lorber is the Founding Editor of Gender & Society.