Where are women’s voices in the coronavirus crisis? | Catherine Bennett | Opinion

That male drivers are much more dangerous to other road users than female ones is a proposition still considered extraordinary enough for an academic study confirming this widely observed phenomenon to have made headlines last week.

Discussing the difference, the authors note, in the journal Injury Prevention, the major gender imbalance in driving jobs and advise policymakers that “reduced risk to others could be a co-benefit from increasing gender equity”.

Presumably, whatever might cause men to kill many more road users, it is not expected to lead to similarly life-threatening decisions when they are parked behind desks, as policymakers. The similarity, sex-ratio-wise, between, say, the Conservative cabinet and the inside of a road hauliers’ cafe is absolutely no cause for concern, other than in terms of fairness and appearance.

And even that disparity, as Dominic Raab used to argue, might not be the difficulty the traffic researchers imply. For one thing, unequal numbers must offer some protection against women he calls “obnoxious bigots”. Using quotas to increase women’s representation is, he once wrote in the Times, “morally wrong”. According to the younger Raab, “younger men suffer as a result of previous male domination for which they bear no responsibility”. He took special exception to the idea, debated after the 2008 banking collapse, that such catastrophes might be less likely under the Lehman Sisters. Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, for example, said that, were it up to him, “I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks.” Christine Lagarde, the former head of the IMF, has likewise argued for increased female representation: “This very diversity also leads to more prudence and less of the reckless decision-making that provoked the crisis.”

But guided, as ever, by the science, Raab dismissed such arguments as “playing on stereotypes that paint men as innately gung-ho and women as more risk-averse”.

He could not have known that his own party would later become the sex-stereotyper’s No 1 choice, having sidelined more risk-averse women in favour of a man whose catchphrase was “do or die” and default insult “girly swot”. Affectionate pieces about Boris Johnson, when he went into intensive care, could not have made it clearer that his risk-loving, competitive, sexually incontinent, sporty, stereotypically male performance is – at least to his fraternity of awed admirers – central to his political appeal. In one tribute, headlined “Mr Invincible”, Stephen Robinson celebrated Johnson’s public acts of crass, heteronormative recklessness, his mad cycling and speeding. “Few politicians – let alone a future prime minister – could get away with having boasted, as he did in the Spectator magazine, of driving at 160mph up the M40.”

Yet to be established, however, is how effective the gendered display, solo and otherwise, will be in the current crisis, beyond the Johnson fan base. The flag-accessorised confirmation, at the daily death count, that men are overwhelmingly in charge has not reassured everyone and not only because it advertises, instructively for any children watching, a hierarchy unevolved, like some of the star performers’ fighting rhetoric, since the second world war.

That key decisions about containing the virus are made exclusively by men – Johnson, Matt Hancock, Raab, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak – assisted by the “get Brexit done” brigade, could have implications still more troubling than this group’s demonstrable indifference to the imminent impact of lockdown on women and children, its early floundering on abortion.

Of Johnson’s early, already comically useless, stab at domestic advice – “use delivery services where you can” – one can only think it must have sounded great over Deliveroos inside the frat house, where the ministry of dudes also believes that “strain every sinew” will greatly reassure health workers actually risking their lives.

Yesterday the government briefing was led by Priti Patel for the first time. She highlighted help to victims of domestic abuse, but it seems unlikely that regular appearances at the lectern by this or another female cabinet favourite, from the handful available, would have made much difference to the Johnson cabal’s strategy. Though to be fair to Patel, she might have made it more brutal. One reason sex quotas have to be substantial enough to morally outrage Raab is to ensure that female success in male-dominated institutions is not reserved for those willing to imitate stereotypical maleness, possibly in an exaggerated form.

But what if women were fairly represented in the senior bodies protecting the UK from Covid-19? Was Andrea Leadsom right to argue, in the Telegraph in February, for “the excellence that a diverse range of views brings to decision-making”? Johnson sacked her the following week.

Thousands packed the stands to watch the racing at Cheltenham on 13 March 2020.

Thousands packed the stands at Cheltenham on 13 March 2020. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Just as literature on risk can’t prove that, run by women, the banks would not have collapsed, we can’t be sure a significant female presence would have altered attitudes when the Johnson friendship group was choosing not to focus on supplies of protective gear and ventilators, not to maintain testing, not to scrutinise arrivals from abroad, not to stop handshaking and not to prohibit massive gatherings such as the England-Wales rugby at Twickenham and the Cheltenham races, despite the World Health Organization’s advice and the evidence from Italy.

But if it’s mistaken to imagine that gender diversity might have influenced pre-lockdown attitudes to risk, when tens of thousands of solitary deaths were reportedly assessed as a fair exchange for the survivors’ prosperity, something has to explain why the UK approach was, if not the full gung-ho, so far from inspiring trust. Compare it, for instance, to decisions made in New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Germany – where policymaking seems to have been guided, above all, by caution.

Respect, in any event, to Jacinda Ardern, Erna Solberg, Mette Frederiksen, Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Angela Merkel.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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