The Strengths Women Leaders Bring to A Crisis

Nicole Carlsburg | Apr 21, 2020


At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, we’ve spent the past 20 years studying obstacles and opportunities for women officeholders and candidates. Our research has consistently shown that women face impossible ethical pedestals and double standards from voters. But, the pressure of this sudden COVID-19 crisis also shines a spotlight on the unique strengths women leaders bring to the table.

We’ve seen women across the country prove they can connect to constituents. As schools have closed down and non-essential workers have been forced to stay home, coronavirus has caused stress on families and mothers – something many women leaders have experienced firsthand. Tammy Duckworth, a mother to two young children, shared advice on homeschooling while schools are closed down. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a PSA to nervous children, assuring them that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are essential workers. Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her daughter have hosted a virtual storytime for children stuck inside. Our research has shown that voters worry about how a woman candidate can manage it all. These women are proving their motherhood is an asset, helping them relate to their constituents through shared experiences and concerns.

We’ve seen women showcase their authentic selves. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik – the youngest Republican women ever elected to Congress and one of only 26 Millennials currently serving in Congress – is keeping new graduates with student loan debt in mind. California Rep. Katie Porter was candid when she told TBS host Samantha Bee in an interview, “I’m a single mom. The dinner’s burning. I’m late to something.” Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar opened up about the personal difficulty of her husband’s diagnosis. Women running for office often face a likeability tightrope, but being honest and approachable can help women showcase this essential trait, especially in a time of uncertainty.

We’ve seen women make it clear that they have the experience and expertise to handle this crisis. Kim Schrier, the only female doctor in Congress, has used her medical background to advocate for medical support early on. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a long-time advocate of affordable housing, is working on emergency relief for vulnerable residents. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, known for being a strong police chief, has brought her “just the facts” approach to taking early protection measures. Women serving across local, state, and federal positions have stepped up and taken decisive action. Our research finds that voters hold women to higher standards when it comes to qualifications, which means the women leading the coronavirus response have to do more to prove they are accomplished and capable. Right now, the spotlight is on politicians as they serve their communities and demonstrate their qualifications to voters.

During this coronavirus crisis, women serving in offices across the country are changing the face of leadership and paving the way for more women like them. As Barbara Lee, president and founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, wrote “This crisis is reshaping our society, our economy and our lives at warp speed. Let’s make sure it also reshapes our notion of what [..] leadership looks like.”

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