Katherine Branson Essay Prize 2021 - Winner




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Who Runs the World? by Beth Holmes 


In January 2020 I was in the middle of my first year of medical school, grappling with anatomy, histology and physiology. Little did I know that a viral pandemic was gathering pace around the world that was going to change my life and those of millions of others. Two months later and I was starting my first shift as a heathcare assistant in a local emergency department. My university course had been suspended, so, keen to get clinical experience and help in the NHS response, I found myself donning scrubs and a FFP3. A year on and what have I and the rest of the world learnt?

In the male dominated political space, female world leaders have shone in their responses to the Covid pandemic. Whilst Jacinda Arden, Tsai Ing-wen and Angela Merkel gained global attention with their countries’ comparatively low death rates, Boris Johnson was criticised for a sluggish response to the health risks posed by the virus and for outsourcing PPE contracts to friends (1).  Meanwhile, in the similarly male dominated arena of science, women like Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Ozlem Tureci have also been at the forefront of vaccine breakthroughs that are turning the tide of the pandemic (2). More than ever before this global crisis has highlighted the value of gender diversity in our society. So, what is it that has led to their success? And more importantly, what we all learn from them?

  • Non-Verbal Communication

Traditionally it has been thought that women need to emulate male leadership styles and non–verbal communication (NVC) to compete in male dominated fields. Research on televised interviews during the pandemic, however, found that female leaders displayed typically feminine NVC (3). Women expressed empathy and compassion though their voice, eye contact and facial expressions. Comparatively, men were found to portray competitive, threatening and fear-arousing gestures. Whilst female leaders’ NVC acted to enhance their leadership during the crisis, their male counterparts aroused feelings of antagonism (3).

  • Verbal Communication.

The language used by world leaders strongly influences levels of public trust (4). This is especially pertinent during a pandemic when the most effective method to save lives is to ask whole populations to reduce social contact to a minimum. On analysis of pandemic speeches, female leaders were found to express more emotive and empathetic statements, compared to male leaders who focused on a ‘wartime’ intimidation approach (4). In New Zealand 88% of people reported trusting their Governments’ response to the pandemic (5). Jacinda Arden’s ability to be openly ‘emotional’, whilst usually condemned in leadership, aligned with the national response to the pandemic.

  • Collaborative Decision making

Countries with low transmission and death rates were characterised by swift decisions on national restrictions. Often women leaders are criticised for being risk averse. During the pandemic, however, the prioritisation of health over economy, actively collaborating with science experts, and the ability to act decisively demonstrated an active willingness by females in power to take risks in the best interests of their countries (1)(4)(5). New Zealand locked down when it had 102 cases and 0 deaths. Comparatively UK had 6,500 cases and over 330 deaths. Whilst Boris Johnson ignored scientific advice, women acted on it (6).

The current crisis has highlighted the vital role that women play in society. Over 70% of the NHS workforce are women, and an even higher proportion of care home workers (7). Women were at the forefront of the Covid response, exposing themselves and their families to risk. The role of teachers, another female dominated workforce, became evident as the whole country has discovered how difficult it is to home-school, and the Government have prioritised the re-opening of schools to ensure businesses can re-open fully. Women, however, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, taking on the burden of carer responsibilities, consequently being more likely to lose their jobs and have reductions in income (8). It has been hypothesised that the drop in scientific papers published by women during the pandemic may be partially a result of such increased unpaid responsibilities (8). The lack of women in policy spaces means such barriers for women have not yet been adequately addressed (9).


This year has made me re-evaluate my future. Having previously believed that the Emergency Department was too ‘macho’ for me, I have discovered how much I enjoy a fast-paced environment, where team cohesion, shared leadership and compassion are vital. I have stepped out of my comfort zone and seen other women do the same. From fellow healthcare professionals working under enormous stress, to politicians and scientists, women have stepped up and out of the shadows. Let us hope that society starts to acknowledge that whilst men have traditionally run the world, women have the skillset required to do it better.


  1. Garikipati, S. and Kambhampati, U., 2021. Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?. [online] SSRN. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3617953 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3617953> [Last Accessed 28 March 2021].
  2. UN Women. 2021. Women in science who are making a difference during the pandemic. [online] Available at: <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/2/compilation-women-in-science-leading-during-the-pandemic> [Last Accessed 28 March 2021].
  3. Grebelsky-Lichtman, T. and Katz, R., 2020. Gender Effect on Political Leaders’ Nonverbal Communicative Structure during the COVID-19 Crisis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(21), p.7789.
  4. Dada, S., Ashworth, H., Bewa, M. and Dhatt, R., 2021. Words matter: political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMJ Global Health, 6(1), p.e003910.
  5. Wilson, S., 2020. Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. Leadership, 16(3), pp.279-293.
  6. Mercer, D., 2021. COVID-19: How scientists warned Boris Johnson in private before 'inevitable' national lockdown. [online] Sky News. Available at: <https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-did-boris-johnson-ignore-his-scientific-advisers-in-the-run-up-to-lockdown-12179849> [Last Accessed 28 March 2021].
  7. Gender in the NHS. [ebook] NHS Employers. Available at: <https://www.nhsemployers.org/-/media/Employers/Documents/Plan/DIVERSITY-AND-INCLUSION/EQW19/Gender-in-the-NHS-infographic.pdf> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
  8. Ribarovska, A., Hutchinson, M., Pittman, Q., Pariante, C. and Spencer, S., 2021. Gender inequality in publishing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 91, pp.1-3.
  9. Wenham, C., Smith, J. and Morgan, R., 2020. COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak. The Lancet, 395(10227), pp.846-848.

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