Centering Gender & Intersectionality: Lessons From the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Advisory Board

“Women leaders attract other women; we have this ability to promote and lift up other women, and we need to take that seriously and take advantage of those opportunities.”

Dr. Julie Morita

That was one of the many calls to action from our most recent speaker series event, “Gender & Power: A Conversation with Women from the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.” 

While women represent 70% of the health care workforce globally, they continue to be significantly underrepresented on COVID-19-related decision-making bodies, in research, in media coverage and in health leadership broadly in the U.S. and around the world. 

A welcome change came as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris announced appointments to their Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board in late 2020. The 16-member team, which was specifically charged with centering science and equity in their response, consisted of a diverse group — of which seven were women and more than half people of color.

During our event, we heard from four impressive women who served on the Advisory Board about the importance of centering women’s needs and voices in the pandemic recovery. The speakers included Ms. Loyce Pace, Director of the Office of Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Jill Jim, Executive Director of Navajo Department of Health, Dr. Celine Gounder, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Dr. Julie Morita, Executive Vice President of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. WomenLift Health Executive Director Amie Batson moderated the conversation.

Here are four takeaways from the discussion.

1. Representation matters

It’s powerful to see women, and especially women of color, in leadership roles. By being in a prominent, visible position, they serve as role models, encouraging others to pursue leadership. “One thing I recognized was the power of women and sisterhood in that space but also how critically important it was for me to identify and for people to identify me as a person of color,”  Ms. Pace said of her time on the Advisory Board. The women highlighted the importance of leaders being able to bring their full selves to the table and implored the audience to focus on both the tangible and intangible gains when people of diverse backgrounds are present and seen at the table.

2. We need a commitment to equity in COVID-19 recovery

In order to bring about equitable policies, we need to ensure that communities, especially those that have historically been marginalized, are involved in decision-making. “The voices of all communities need to be heard because their needs will be different,” Dr. Jim said. COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on women — through dangerous spikes in domestic violence, and increasing, often overwhelming caregiving responsibilities — and people of color — who have faced higher rates of contracting and dying of COVID-19 and disproportionate job losses. An equitable recovery plan means taking these disparities into account and listening to people affected by them so everyone can recover from this crisis.

3. We must acknowledge and push back against systemic barriers

Women often operate in different contexts and face greater systemic barriers to success in the workplace and beyond. “COVID has made it clear — it’s not individual problems, it’s the system in which we work,” said Dr. Morita. We need to advocate for specific policies and investments that take such barriers into account rather than ignoring them. For example, to counter women leaving the workforce at disproportionate rates during the pandemic, we need to invest in workplace accommodations, including those that support working mothers. “If you aren’t intentional, you end up with an inequitable response,” Ms. Batson summarized.

4. Everyone has the power to support women’s leadership

We all have a role to play in supporting women’s leadership, from advocating for societal change or organizational policies to voting for those who are supporting women’s advancement. But action cannot just be taken by women — men have to step up. “I think male allies can do a better job,” said Dr. Gounder.  That includes opening doors for colleagues who are women and people of color — whether for interview and media opportunities or leadership roles — to break the cycle of discrimination. Allies of all genders must continue to speak up, even when it is inconvenient for them. 

Throughout this conversation, we were inspired by the speakers’ commitment to representation and equity, including in their work on the Advisory Board. We also appreciated their emphasis on the importance of serving as role models for and supporting other women, helping to drive change towards a world where people of all genders are represented at decision-making tables. 

Watch and listen to the full event here: