Women, Wicked Problems, & Pandemics

by Julie Graber | on 16 Apr 2020

There have been a number of articles recently about the women’s leadership during the Coronavirus pandemic. This one caught my attention the other day was Does COVID-19 Prove Women Are Best Suited to Lead in a Crisis?, but it is certainly not the first of its kind. 

This article focuses on New Zealand and Germany and draws a connection between each country’s response to the coronavirus, which have been effective (so far) in limiting the spread of the virus, and the fact that both countries are lead by women: Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel. Ardern has given a “masterclass” in political leadership according to one article referenced by author CJ Werlemen, while Merkel and Germany have taken a “bazooka” to the virus’s threat according to another.

Werlemen makes his argument that women may be better suited for our current crisis based on previous research that showed that women outscored men on 17 of 19 capabilities that distinguish the best leaders, including taking initiative; acting with resilience; practices self-development while also fostering development in others, building relationships, and championing change. 

Werlemen refers to the coronavirus pandemic as a “wicked problem,” a term coined in the late 1960s-early 1970s that has found business application in recent years. Wicked problems are described as unprecedented in nature, a “direct challenge to business-as-usual.” There is usually a social complexity to wicked problems, with many different stakeholders and differences of opinion regarding the solutions. Wicked problems can’t be solved on command, they require “flexible and collaborative” problem-solving. 

While Werlemen might not be aware of it, there is additional research that supports his theory that women may be the best choice to lead us if the problems we face are "wicked". In a study conducted by PwC and Harthill Consulting in 2015, researchers identified the skills needed to solve wicked problems, which included the ability to reframe problems from multiple perspectives and to detach the personal from the behavior and see view the situation objectively. Strategists, the term used for these leaders, are also able to shift from the big picture to detail and back again without losing direction or focus, and they are able to lead with both vulnerability and courage. Interestingly, the research showed that women were more likely to have these skills than their male counterparts in the companies included in the study.

This makes sense when you consider additional findings in this study that leaders who have advanced through the operational side of a business may not be best suited to lead the type of transformation needed to solve wicked problems. This is the career path that most men follow. By the time they get to the top, men hold roughly 83% of C-suite positions overall, and 80% of these men are in operational positions directly related to lines of business. 

For women who do make it to the top (holding 17% of C-suite positions overall), roughly two-thirds occupy staff position: CHRO, CFO, CIO, General Counsel, etc. These roles rarely become stepping stones to the CEO position, and aside from the CFO, don’t usually show up among the most highly compensated execs. Time and time again, when I look at executive teams, if there are female executive officers, they are invariably in one of these staff positions. 

There’s an irony in here somewhere: women’s typical career path through positions of support (not production) - which is one of the most frequently-cited reasons for that lack of women CEOs, female board members, and the gender pay gap - is the very thing that provides them skills and capabilities needed to lead in a time of crisis - in a time when the problems we face can only be described as “wicked.” 

Whether or not these research findings help explain the competencies attributed to Ardern and Merkel is an extended topic for another post. Werlemen argues that this gender gap in leadership skills is worth exploring; the question is whether the findings would make any difference.

Other articles of note (I'll keep updating):

Why Women May Face a Greater Risk of Catching Coronavirus

How Will COVID-19 Affect Women and Girls in Low- and Middle-Income Countries?

COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak

Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates inequalities for women, UN warns

Breaking: Some States Show Alarming Spike in Women’s Share of Unemployment Claims

‘The Reality Is, It’s Incredibly Hard’

The secret weapon in the fight against coronavirus: women

What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders

Women Are Leading Canada’s Public Health Response To The COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak

Chief medical officers are leading Canada through COVID-19 crisis — and many are women

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