Lighting the way: Women, Character & COVID-19

Kimberley Young Milani, Gerard Seijts | Apr 2, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, Canadians are seeing a large number of women lead us through the crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is chairing the federal Cabinet task force to tackle the national response to the outbreak. Through almost daily press conferences, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is providing Canadians with factual updates and measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, while encouraging us all to “not just to flatten the curve, but plank it.” She has been described as a voice of reason and projecting a calm that gives Canadians confidence that she is in control and on top of the latest developments. Then there are the provincial medical health officers including but not limited to Dr. Bonnie Henry from British Columbia; Dr. Deena Hinshaw from Alberta; and Dr. Jennifer Russell from New Brunswick. These – and many, many other female officials in the public sector – have become familiar to Canadians in a relatively short time. Their leadership is steadfast, proficient and reassuring, and they are being labeled as heroes by many. Canadians have even written songs about them; started social media fan accounts; put their portraits on t-shirts; and found many other ways to pay homage to their commitment to guiding us through what is an uncertain and frightening situation for many citizens.

Twinned with the prominent visibility of women leaders is a rise in the discourse surrounding leadership and character. The collective character of Canada has been used as an explanation as to why our response to the COVID-19 crisis is so different from that of the United States. Meanwhile, many of us are reflecting on the myriad ways in which our character has been tested these past few weeks – at work, at home, in grocery stores, in hospital and senior homes, in our neighbourhoods, etc. – as well as how character can help us to navigate through the pandemic.

At the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, we have been focusing on the role of character in leadership since the global financial crisis. And, since 2016, we have been measuring public perceptions of character in political life; that is, which dimensions of character – accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance and transcendence – are seen as important to providing good leadership. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that most Canadians rate these dimensions of character as very important to effective political leadership. However, there are some intriguing findings if we take a deeper look at the data. Notably, women rate the importance of collaboration, humanity, humility, justice and temperance higher than men. The differences are small but statistically significant. To be clear, it is not that men see these dimensions as unimportant to leadership – far from it. It is just that women rate these dimensions as more important than men do. On the other hand, men do not rate any of the other dimensions – such as courage or drive, which are often stereotyped as a “masculine” attribute – higher or as more important to good leadership than women. Simply put, there is no clear parsing of the dimensions into “masculine” and “feminine” buckets along gender lines. Rather, they are all human-valued dimensions with collaboration, humanity, humility, justice and temperance elevated in importance by women. To us, this suggests that, generally speaking, men seem to under-appreciate the aforementioned dimensions when it comes to leadership. What is even more interesting is that our data also show that these differences between the perceived importance of those five dimensions of character largely disappeared for those under age 34. These findings allow for a number of observations.

Firstly, the crisis we currently face is not a war that pitches people against people, a financial crisis, or any type of calamity that results from actions that affect an organization’s reputation. This is illness, and no amount of bravado, chest beating, singular heroics or even sheer intellectual analysis, will solve this problem. Period. Over centuries, Western patriarchy has, by and large, socialized women to exhibit the behaviours associated with collaboration, humanity, humility, justice and temperance. Because of the current crisis, what has been our slow rousing to the fact that these are critical dimensions of leadership and character, is being jolted awake. It could be that this pandemic might achieve something that feminism has been positing for decades – that these are not weak personality traits, mushy feelings, bleeding hearts or soft spots but rather exhibitions of great strength in leadership. They are dimensions that greatly contribute to the greater/common good.

With the nature of this crisis demanding that approach – the well-being of the commons rather than benefitting the few – we believe that people are trusting women to work towards that end. Decades of research show that when women are empowered, families, organizations, communities and societies flourish – socially, economically, physically, culturally, etc. For example, this is why Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen bank almost exclusively micro-loans to women – because he knew that their success would be distributive and their profit shared to benefit their families and communities; whereas men, statistically, tend to hoard their earnings and use it in ways that benefit only themselves.

The link to the success of female leaders in the political realm and COVID-19 is straightforward. They are getting high marks because they are exhibiting the judgment and subsequent actions needed for citizens to collectively get a handle on things. They are looking out for and taking care of the young, the poor, the elderly, the sick, our families, our communities, etc. Women have been socialized to connect with others and share ideas; to work collectively and relationally; to demonstrate concern and care for others; to be creative and resourceful; to be trustworthy; and to put the needs of others ahead of their own (for better or worse for their own well-being). When it comes to taking care of people, women are trusted to do it because they always have – just usually with no fanfare, no credit, and no compensation. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic for this to change from their expected labour due to their gender to a critical and valued leadership skill for all humanity, but better late than never.

A second noteworthy and optimistic revelation within the data is that the rating of the importance of collaboration, humanity, humility, justice and temperance appears to equalize in the millennial generation. Women’s empowerment and expectations of what it means to be a woman in society has been broadening since the second wave of feminism hit in the 1960s. But, it has really only been within more recent times that there has been a reciprocal expansion of what it means to be a man and of masculinity, as well as gender, in general. More accurately, millennials are the first generation to inhabit adulthood with gender as a spectrum. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that many millennial males no longer undervalue character dimensions that may have traditionally be considered “feminine” because they are no longer socialized or expected to do so. Very soon millennials will become the largest employee demographic in Canada and they harbour a very different view toward leadership and leaders. They place less emphasis on hierarchy and status and instead focus on creating an inclusive workplace. They encourage voice and collaboration.

We hope Canadians will not forget the many lessons embedded in this crisis. Firstly, how women leaders stepped up to the plate to lead when confronted with one of the most dire events in recent history. Secondly, that they did so by exhibiting character dimensions that for too long have been absent in traditional exhibitions of leadership but were truly a differentiator during this crisis – humanity, humility, collaboration, justice and temperance. Thirdly, that the younger generations value these dimensions equally and we hope it remains so. Once this pandemic passes, there are many crises coming to a boil on the world’s stove and they will need all of the dimensions of leader character to address and mitigate them. And lastly, that once the crisis of COVID passes, we hope that societies will no longer question women’s ability to lead in any situation – question her likeability, electability, strength, emotionality, etc. – and remember that when the going got rough, women stood steadfast and lit the way.

Kimberley Young Milani is the Co-founder of the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program and the Manager of Operations, Projects and Stakeholder Engagement, for the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and is the Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. He can be reached at

About the Author

Sharon Van Duynhoven

Office Manager

Sharon brings our tests and assessments from the development stage to marketable product. She ensures quality control at every step of a project, edits technical documents and manuals, and artistically enhances reports and resources. She also manages contracts with clients across the globe and answers technical questions.