Africa: Empowering Women Leaders in Health – The Crucial Role of Mentorship in Achieving Inclusive Leadership

Step into the health clinics, operating theaters, or administrative offices of medical centers worldwide, and you’ll likely notice a predominance of female faces. This is because  women constitute almost 70% of the health workforce  . Take a look at  healthcare leadership   and the picture changes significantly: women only hold 25% of senior leadership positions in health, and when you look at global health specifically, the number of women from low- and middle-income countries in leadership  drops   to a paltry 5%.

The clamor for inclusive leadership is more than a call for gender balance; it’s a resonant plea for the richness of diverse voices, perspectives, and life experiences at the helm. Elevating women to leadership roles isn’t just about parity;it’s a strategic move towards fostering better health outcomes for all.

Studies have shown that when women lead, the people they represent live healthier lives. Women in power have led  more proactive and coordinated responses   to health crises, which saved lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Women leaders also tend to prioritize investments in public health, most notably in women and children, leading to, for example, measurable  reductions in neonatal mortality  .

Notably, most women never reach leadership positions where they could have a transformative impact. Gender bias, harassment, and family responsibilities lead to women being pushed, pulled, or opting out of their careers. This is why mentorship programs for mid-career women leaders are an essential part of rectifying the imbalance of power. When done well, mentorship can dramatically advance women’s careers, especially in male-dominated STEM fields.

Unfortunately, too many mentorship programs for women are hastily developed, sometimes with the primary goal being to tick-off a box on a diversity checklist. Building quality mentorship programs takes time, but the payoff can be considerable.

As women leaders, we’ve both experienced the difference a good mentor can make. A  new multi-country report   from WomenLift Health highlights how good mentors can lift women up, while bad mentorship – or the absence of any mentorship at all – holds women back.

Drawing on these experiences, we have identified five characteristics of successful mentorship programs:

Mentorship programs should be designed to value women’s unique strengths, not change   them.

Mentorship often assumes women need fixing to fit into male-established systems, emphasizing assertiveness or win-lose tactics. Yet, research highlights women’s unique and valuable leadership strengths—empathy, collaboration, inclusion, inspiration. Success hinges on recognizing and valuing these distinct qualities.


Clear goals and expectations for mentorships and sponsorship are essential. 

Setting clear goals is crucial in mentorships. Early establishment of professional development and career objectives helps mentees align with mentors who suit their aspirations. Providing mentors with resources enhances support. Creating a secure space for mentees fosters effective communication. Active sponsorship from mentors, advocating for promotions, and advancement opportunities, plays a key role in leveling the playing field.

Changing the status quo can’t rest solely on women – male leaders must be part of the change.

Our systems, mostly designed by and for men, need male leaders to actively engage as allies, mentors, and sponsors. Unfortunately, bias surfaces – 71% of executives choose protégés of the same gender or race. In fields like health, dominated by white males, this perpetuates gender bias. Men in leadership roles must consciously seek mentees from diverse backgrounds to break this cycle.

Mentorship programs must be coupled with institutional efforts to advance women’s leadership.

Achieving institutional change requires active sponsorship from top executives who wield the power to shape structures, processes, cultures, and norms. Health leaders must sensitively address the unique challenges women encounter, considering intersections with factors like race, religion, and sexual orientation. Mentorship programs should empower women to articulate these challenges, collaborating with leadership to dismantle policies that impede progress.

Establishing and actively nurturing networks is paramount.

Gender imbalance persists in senior health leadership when men predominantly benefit from networking with other men, excluding women from crucial access to leaders, job openings, and development opportunities. To rectify this, both men and women leaders must deliberately build robust networks. These networks play a vital role not only in helping women attain leadership positions but also in providing ongoing professional and personal support, ensuring their continued success in these roles.

In our careers, we’ve witnessed the direct influence of mentorship on women ascending to senior leadership. Senior health leaders and organizations must be intentional about investing in robust mentorship programs that consider these imperative actions. By adopting these measures, the health community can nurture representative and effective leadership, contributing to a healthier world for all.

This guest column was first published on