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Women Leaders in Global Health- Beyond Gender Parity

Women Leaders in Global Health- Beyond Gender Parity

By Shadae Paul, MPH, MPA Candidate, START Center Research Assistant

Shadae wrote this article for the Department of Global Health Student Blog. Find the original article here.




Women in leadership is possible if we are prepared to admit that there are talented women around us. The problem is we don’t admit that they exist.

–Veronica Magar

Where are women leaders in global health? Historically, leadership in global health has been a space dominated and perpetuated by male researchers, academics, doctors, and philanthropists. While women carry a disproportionate burden of disease, are oftentimes the primary caregivers in communities, and comprise a large portion of the global health workforce, women hold only 24% of leadership positions in global health. Lack of visibility of women in leadership positions in academia is similarly astonishing. According to a recent report by the HRH Global Resource Center and the Increasing Women in Leadership in Global Health study conducted by Downs, et. al, although women make up approximately 84% of the student body in the majority of global health programs in the United States, women hold just over a third of global health faculty positions and a quarter of directorships in global health centers among the top 50 universities.

On October 12, 2017, the inaugural Women Leaders in Global Health conference at Stanford University convened over 400 women and men from 68 countries and over 250 organizations, with an additional 400 participating by live stream from 30 countries worldwide. The aim of the conference was to bring together current and future women leaders in global health to address the longstanding gender bias in global health leadership. The intention was to challenge the status quo by moving beyond the call for parity at top leadership levels towards a more equitable model—one that promotes and protects women’s leadership in communities, academia, non-profit organizations, scientific societies, boardrooms, and government.

This conference was timely as it occurred only a week after Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization announced his new senior leadership team of over 60% women from 14 countries. Desiring to hire top talents and to promote gender equity and geographical diversity, Dr. Tedros hired a team of heavy hitters in global health: former ministers of health, some of the world’s leading women physicians, scientists and researchers, and a variety of programmatic experts. While this is a landmark step, women’s leadership is much more complex than outnumbering men in the boardroom.

How can we challenge the paradigm of leadership and move beyond reducing women’s leadership to gender parity? Women Leaders in Global Health keynote speaker Jennifer Leaning, Director, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, provides insight in her keynote speech Bringing Everyone Along: Women Who Have Salvaged Life in Forced Migration. To understand how women leaders can change the paradigm of leadership, we must first understand the unique strength and resilience of women. Leaning used the scope of forced migration—a time when communities are overrun with chaos and desperation—to demonstrate methods women use to lead. Oftentimes during civil unrest, men leave en masse and women and children are left behind. Women in forced conflicts hardly ever abandon their children; they flee while pregnant, breastfeeding, or with young children.

In the absence of men, women rise up as protectors by delegating caregiving responsibilities amongst themselves, strategizing next steps, and “gathering the others” to keep the family and immediate community together. Leaning also notes that women’s resilience in forced migration is distinct from survival. Some women die in an attempt to protect their children and loved ones, “which is something to think about when looking at mortality rates. Sometimes death comes to the brave.” In many ways, women’s inherent leadership attributes— during times of conflict and times of peace—remains constant. Women in leadership roles have a strategic capacity for designing systems. Women leaders strive to protect others, especially the vulnerable. Women leaders are problem solvers. Women leaders are collaborative and people-oriented. Women leaders do not simply demonstrate resiliency; women leaders are resilient.

When the conversation about women in leadership is reduced to gender parity, we lose the opportunity to discuss systematic barriers that prevent women from attaining leadership positions (such as family leave policies and institutional bias). Women’s skill sets are devalued, and we, as a discipline, cannot advance the science and practice of global health with such a limited perception of global health leadership. In addition, when gender parity is achieved and women are brought to the table (as seen in the WHO senior leadership team) women face overwhelming pressure to assimilate into the existing masculine normative architecture. So how can we move forward?

The Women Leaders in Global Health conference opened discourse around these issues with moderated panels that brought together women, and men, who are leaders from across the globe. In Setting the Stage, Agnes Binagwaho, former Minister of Health of Rwanda, advocated for women to stand up for their ideas by stating, “When there is trouble, women are the ones there; when there is fire, women are the ones there; so when you have an idea, be the one there.” Glenda Gray, President, South African Medical Research Council, presented methods to combat institutional bias by discussing how she created pathways for funding research conducted by women and minorities in Why Gender Matters in Health Workforce and Leadership. And, in Engaging Men to Advance Change, Gary Darmstadt, Associate Dean for Maternal and Child Health, Stanford University School of Medicine, discussed male allyship by suggesting that more men must be open to being mentored by women, and that men “are not giving something up by being more inclusive to women; we only have things to gain.”

The Women Leaders in Global Health conference ended with a “Call To Action” to provide actionable steps for women’s leadership. The call included mechanisms to increase visibility, lift women up the ladder, advocate for work-life integration, promote career advancement, cultivate thought leadership, and address the gender data gap. Although the broad range of issues preventing women from attaining leadership positions could not be resolved in a one-day conference, the Women Leaders in Global Health conference was a promising step forward for diversifying leadership in global health.