In situations of crisis, language and communication matter — particularly at the highest levels of political leadership. But do men and women use language differently when they are in positions of power? A new study sets out to investigate, and MNT spoke to its authors about the implications of their research for global health policy.

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Recently, there has been much discussion in the media about gender imbalance in the COVID-19 response.

Journalists and scientists alike have drawn attention to the unequal representation in decision-making bodies, the social impacts that disproportionately affect women or pose unique challenges for transgender people, and heightened effects on other marginalized groups.

In this context, a team of researchers set out to analyze another interesting aspect of COVID-19 politics through the lens of gender: political discourse.

Sara Dada, from the Vayu Global Health Foundation, Boston, MA, is the study’s corresponding author.

Other authors on the paper include:

  • Henry Ashworth, an MD candidate from the Harvard Medical School in Boston
  • Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa, MD, MPH, a research associate with 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, executive director of Women in Global Health

The study — which has now appeared in the journal BMJ Global Health — performed a “Political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In doing so, Dada, the corresponding author, and her colleagues analyzed 122 speeches on COVID-19 made by 20 leaders, 10 of whom were men, while 10 were women.

The leaders were heads of government from the following countries: Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Scotland, Sint Maarten, United Kingdom, United States, and Taiwan.

Using a deductive analytical approach, the authors coded the speeches for specific themes based on the language that leaders used and the content they discussed in their addresses.

The research yielded five different themes across all speeches:

  • economics and financial relief
  • social welfare and vulnerable populations
  • nationalism
  • responsibility and paternalism
  • emotional appeals

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The study found that, although all leaders talked about the economic impact of the pandemic, “women leaders spoke more frequently about the impact on a local or individual scale.”

Furthermore, women leaders described more often “a wider range of social welfare services,” such as those tackling “mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence.”

Finally, “Both men and women from lower-resource settings described detailed financial relief and social welfare support that would impact the majority of their citizen population.”

“While 17 of the 20 leaders used war metaphors to describe the COVID-19 virus and response, men largely used these with greater volume and frequency,” report the authors.

MNT spoke to the study authors about their findings.

MNT: Were you surprised by your findings?

Sara Dada: While we expected to find some differences, we were surprised how stark the differences were when it came to how men and women generated emotional engagement.

Generally, men tended to rely more on fear-based tactics by either using more frequent war rhetoric or blame, while women tended to stress more social unity through personal examples and appeals for compassion. It was also interesting to see how heads of government varied in the types of responses and initiatives they prioritized — for example, only women leaders announced initiatives to address domestic violence.

MNT: What are the implications of your research? Is there any public action that you would like to see as a result of these findings?

Sara Dada: The implication of our work is that communication matters. Every country has responded to the pandemic in varying ways, led by different approaches and leadership styles.

While it is important to recognize differences in societies and cultural preferences that may influence the leadership of different countries, we highlight how the language around the pandemic differs across these leaders and pose questions about what that means long term.

We know that leadership and public trust are imperative in responding to a health emergency, and how heads of government communicate with their citizens influences that trust and, therefore, the future uptake of interventions.

In the short term, we would love to see more work and attention on this relationship to improve overall pandemic response.

In the long term, while we currently have a very small pool of female heads of government to even consider in such analyses, we do see that there may be differences between men and women.

And so we advocate for more equitable and fair leadership that also represents the interests of all citizens.

Dr. Roopa Dhatt: In Women and Global Health, our mantra is that global health security rests on women.

We are asking for a new social contract for women in health that recognizes and values their contribution. The contribution women have made has not earned them an equal say in COVID-19 decision-making. They remain in the minority on COVID-19 task forces — expected to run health systems while men make decisions that impact all our health and lives.

Yet, it has been noted that when women do make decisions, the outcomes are positive — COVID-19 deaths in women-led countries have been six times lower than in countries led by men.

Henry Ashworth: An important takeaway from this analysis is the influence of toxic masculinity on the language used and priorities conveyed by male leaders and how this manifests in fear-based approaches to sway public opinion.

Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa: This study is one of the first to center a gender perspective in relation to decision-makers’ communication and leadership style during the COVID-19 response.

It is clear that women communicated differently and responded to the pandemic through an equity lens, with inclusive policy responses encompassing health, economic, and social measures, leaving no-one behind.

Women in Global Health are committed through its programs, including the COVID 50/50 campaign and WGH 5 ASKS, to ensure that women are effectively positioned to play a leading role at all decision-making levels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery, and building stronger health systems.

Editor’s note: Women in Global Health have put forward five asks to achieve gender equality in global health:

  1. Equal representation of women in global health security decision-making bodies.
  2. Safe and decent working conditions for women healthcare workers.
  3. Recognition of the value of women’s unpaid healthcare work.
  4. Gender-responsive approaches to health security.
  5. Well-funded women’s movements and organizations.

MNT: What are some strengths and limitations to your study?

Sara Dada: In terms of limitations, the pandemic is far from over, and the approaches of leaders may continue to change as time progresses. This study does not attempt to link the communication style of leaders to a country’s success in responding to COVID-19, and recognizes that communication is just one component of leadership.

Second, the sample of women leaders globally is regrettably small. Only 24% of parliamentarians globally are women, and only 17 women hold a position as head of government. We cannot comprehensively analyze the differences in men’s and women’s leadership styles and approaches when the sample is so skewed.

On the other hand, our study was conducted with a rigorous methodology and included a total of 120 speeches across 20 countries. We had two independent researchers review and analyze each speech and found a high rate of consistency.

Another strength is that it is the first study we are aware of that takes such an in-depth look at the specific language and rhetoric used by leaders regarding COVID-19 in 2020. We hope that this emphasis on communication inspires additional work and attention on the importance of communication in pandemic response.