In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been observed that countries led by female politicians have done better in terms of implementing social distancing measures. Examples include Angela Merkel of Germany, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark and Sanna Marin of Finland.
There is some controversy regarding the appropriate response and the degree of policy stringency required. It is also the case that only a small number of countries around the world are governed by women. Extrapolating from small numbers is fraught with risks.
But leaving those caveats aside, why were female leaders so much more pro-active in implementing social distancing policies?
Evolutionary theory may provide an answer. Evidence suggests that women necessarily tend to be more nurturing, circumspect and risk-averse than men. An obvious consequence of this is that men tend to be hyper-competitive and over-confident. Faced with the risk of large-scale loss of lives, female leaders moved more swiftly to implement social distancing to minimise the risk. It is possibly not an exaggeration to suggest countries which struggled the most in charting a consistent course (notably the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil and India) are led by competitive and over-confident men.
Evolutionary theory teaches us that a primary human drive is to pass on our genes to successive generations. Given the amount of parental investment required of men is much less than women, males can have many more offspring than females. If a male can out-compete other males in having a greater number of sexual partners, he can have more progeny. Males have more incentive to compete, which in turn necessitates more risk-taking, as there is always the possibility of injury or loss of life in such competitions for mates.
In the animal kingdom, males are generally showier, more aggressive and more territorial. The level of male aggression is higher among polygamous animals as opposed to those that are monogamous. Males are also physically larger than females in polygamous societies than in monogamous ones. Bull elephant seals are much larger than females and often engage in brutal battles for control of female harems.
Closer to home, economists Lise Vesterlund and Muriel Niederle show that women often tend to avoid competing with men, even where there are no differences in their respective performance or ability. It is equally true that men tend to be over-confident and over-estimate their chances of success and therefore tend to compete "too much".
There is literature that looks at gender differences in risk aversion. Catherine Eckel and Philip Grossman point out that results from studies looking at either decisions made in abstract lottery choice experiments or in the context of financial decision-making show women as more risk-averse. One example is retirement savings, where a larger proportion of women prefer to invest in less risky options such as term deposits.
The same insight comes through in actual investment behaviour of men and women. Brad Barber and Terrance Odean studied 35,000 investment accounts sorted by gender and found women outperformed men, mostly because men tend to be over-confident and trade more. Women had turnover rates of 54 per cent while men had 77 per cent and the accounts with higher turnover performed worse than the average market return during this period.
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There is also evidence to suggest risk-averse women are less likely to generate asset bubbles (such as tech stock bubbles or housing bubbles) of the type that fuelled the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
Such gender differences tend to be compounded in times of stress.
Existing evidence suggests that the such risk-aversion leads is behind the gender wage-gap, at least partly due to female reluctance to negotiate salaries. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out in their book, women don't ask. This may result in small differences between male and female salaries at the outset, but when bonuses, outside offers and merit increases are based on existing salary, small differences in the beginning translate into large differentials a few years on.
There is one caveat. Women who attend single-sex schools and those who grow up in matrilineal societies such as the Khasi in India, exhibit similar risk-taking and competitive tendencies as men.
The bottom line is, in trying times - be it a pandemic or a global financial crisis, when risk minimisation becomes important - being led by women may be beneficial for corporations and countries.
This reinforces calls for greater diversity, both in the boardroom as well as in government for more reflective and deliberative policy making.
• Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland. The views expressed are his own.