• Sinclair Barbehenn

A Healthy and Happy Society: Why We Need More Women in Leadership

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

It comes down to what we value: as a nation, as consumers, and as people. Where we place value matters and can make a difference. When one looks at a country's laws, and considers how its people spend their money, it's possible to see what's of value to a particular nation.

America values the economy. Money matters and is equated with success. If you’re able to afford particular things, it means you’re successful. The same line of thinking leads Americans to valuing the economy’s success. We want the dollar to be strong because money is everything in our society. This can be seen by what people purchase and for whom they vote. Donald Trump said he would improve our economy and people voted him into office in 2016.

We're now in the midst of a global pandemic and President Trump put the economy above all else. He refused to respond to COVID-19 and kept the States open so that people could work, so that the economy could keep running, and yet it did not help. The U.S. is in the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression (1) and thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19 with additional thousands who have been negatively affected by it (2). It is a losing scenario no matter how you look at it.

On the other side of the world, and with a completely different mindset and style of leadership, a nation has proven that if you look beyond GDP, it cannot only be successful, but also thrive. New Zealand was the first country in the world to be COVID-free. Some might object to this comparison as unfair since New Zealand is an island nation with a much smaller population than the U.S. But these facts shouldn't take away from the impressive feat of leadership it took to decontaminate the entire country.

Image by: AP Photo/Nick Perry

New Zealand is also the first country to have a national budget dedicated to well-being, with mental health as a priority (3).

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, believes that the main priority and purpose of the government should be to ensure health and life satisfaction to its citizens (3). Ardern also believes that GDP alone does not necessarily lead to better living standards. From living in the U.S. and knowing the varying standards of living people have, I would agree with that. The dollar might be strong but that doesn’t mean that everyone is living happily or well because of it.

The wealth inequality in the US is astounding, creating the largest gap between the rich and the poor than any other developed nation (4). The economy is clearly not everything. What is important for a country’s government is to ensure life satisfaction for all of its citizens, and this is what Ardern aspires to do. I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty great, and not completely unreasonable. Having more empathy in leadership will create the foundation we need for policies that people can benefit from.

It comes down to what we value. If we reassess that money does not lead to happiness, the US and other countries can work to implement similar policies. New Zealand is not alone in this desire to create a happy society and healthy economy. It is, in fact, part of an alliance with Iceland, Scotland, and Wales, known as the Wellbeing Economy Governments (5). This alliance was founded in an effort to collaborate and encourage well-being in an economic agenda. Iceland is leading the way with equal pay for men and women, and having child care and paternity rights (6,7). Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon understands that GDP is a narrow measurement of the wealth and success of a nation and aims to do better. The economy matters -- but it is not the only thing that matters (5).

Sturgeon tells us that this journey started in 2007, with Scotland’s National Performance Framework, which looked at the indicators such as access to green spaces and housing, income inequality, and happiness of children, none of which are part of GDP, but are very important to a healthy and happy society (7). In the 1970s, the fourth King of Bhutan coined the term "gross national happiness," which is something that should be revisited and used more (3). The economic wealth of a nation does not mean much unless it benefits its people so they can be rich in more ways than one. As Adam Smith observed, “the value of any government is judged in proportion to the extent that it makes its people happy” (7).

Image By: Reuters/Russell Cheyne

What do New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland have in common?

Female leadership. Something we clearly need more of. Some people believe in the stereotype that women are too emotional to be in leadership roles, which is simply untrue. If the success stories of Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon show anything, it is that women are capable and effective leaders. These two women are exemplifying how to incorporate empathy in politics.

Countries with female leadership have had far less COVID-related deaths and are predicted to recover faster from economic loss (8). Although it may be correlation and not causation, it does seem that women leaders are responding better to the crisis than their male counterparts. Female leaders tend to prioritize long-term social well-being for their countries rather than short-term economic gain (8). These women create policies that help and support their citizens rather than sacrifice them in the name of the economy. There may be small differences between men and women, but not enough to keep the decades old sentiment that only men are fit for politics. After seeing how these particular leaders have handled various issues, I for one can’t wait to see more women in power.

For some additional inspiration listen to NPR Radio Hour: What We Value


  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52236936

  2. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/?utm_campaign=homeAdUOA?Si#countries

  3. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/8/18656710/new-zealand-wellbeing-budget-bhutan-happiness

  4. https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/

  5. https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wego

  6. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/03/04/iceland-leads-the-way-to-womens-equality-in-the-workplace

  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJzSWacrkKo#action=share

  8. https://wellbeingeconomy.org/women-in-power-countries-with-female-leaders-suffer-six-times-fewer-covid-deaths-and-will-recover-sooner-from-recession

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