Q&A with Ayesha Chaudhary, India Director

Ayesha Chaudhary, India Director

Having successfully navigated the 2022 India Leadership Journey as a WomenLift Health alumna, could you share a pivotal moment from the program that influenced your career trajectory and led you to this role?

I joined the WomenLift Health 2022 India Leadership Journey with mixed feelings as I was in a liminal space at the time. However, the semi-structured nature of the program enabled me to develop my own three-pillar leadership framework of self-awareness, enablement, and experimentation, to practice “total leadership” (proposed by Stewart Friedman as leadership that creates harmony across four key domains of life – work, family, community, and the self). The India Leadership Journey made me further believe that if I could do this, if 29 of my cohort members could, then so can a hundred thousand more women. In fact, this experience motivated me to contribute to women-led development in global and public health, through WomenLift Health.

At WomenLift Health, we  aim to enable more women to define their own path for leadership that allows them to continue to be intentional, strategic and impactful. It is crucial to drive a mindset and behavior change and enable individuals, institutions, and societies to reimagine leadership through innovation and use effective leadership to further impact public health outcomes.

How did the WomenLift Health India Leadership Journey contribute to your development and preparedness for such a senior leadership position?

One of the biggest “aha moments” for me during the Journey was when we were introduced to the concept of “total leadership,” which is very different from the idea of conventional leadership that has always perplexed me, because it excludes self-leadership, community leadership, and family leadership. I vividly remember asking my mentor, Pritha (Venkatachalam), if I would be considered a leader despite not managing large teams at the time. She said to me: ‘Ayesha you are now instead a total leader. The Leadership Journey experience reinforced my belief that leadership is much more than the formal authority your profession provides you and unidirectional progression at work. Leadership is about exploring a meaningful life, through knowing yourself better, identifying your blind spots, and inspiring people at work, in the family, and in your community.

As someone deeply committed to advancing women’s leadership in health, what specific challenges and opportunities do you see for women in the Indian health sector?

When I see P.T. Usha winning an Olympic medal for India, I can aspire to be her. If I don’t see her, I can’t dream to be her. The biggest challenge in the Indian health sector is the limited number of P.T. Usha’s, or so to say, equivalent role models.  

I found not one, but several P.T. Usha’s in my career in science and innovation early on. As I started to engage with them, I realized that this was the beginning of a long-term two-way relationships, in which I’d get inspired by their work and they’d get happier to see me do well. It’s important to find these role models and convert them into sponsors, if possible.

At the same time, it is equally important for young women to become that P.T. Usha for other women in public health and inspire more women to chart their own leadership trajectories. So, I try to mentor younger women colleagues, so should all women.

Can you elaborate on your passion for women’s rights and how it informs your strategic vision for fostering inclusivity and gender diversity in the health sector?

While I was growing up in school, I was a shy, nervous bookworm, who didn’t engage much in co-curricular activity and social relationships. But over last few years, especially during my start-up days, I have seen myself evolve into a professional who has often been the only female talking to a room full of male professionals. There were several tipping points in my life. The question that I’ve become passionate about is: how can we enable more girls and women to experience such moments to unleash their potential and become effective leaders? WomenLift Health provides such a platform for aspiring women leaders.

India has been progressive in designing gender-inclusive policies, however institutions have been unable to implement them due to a lack of gender diversity experts, mandates from institutional heads, appropriate budget allocation, and so on. India’s health institutions need effective leaders and a substantial percentage of them need to be women. Otherwise, the government’s promising policies will only be good on paper. India is in a unique position to change this, because women’s leadership in India does not always have a formal authority, allowing room for creating formal and informal leadership models for women in science and public health.

Given your extensive leadership experience, what do you think are the greatest challenges facing women’s health leadership in India across the public health ecosystem?

Women’s leadership in India is a multi-layered problem, which requires unbundling leadership as a unique skill at a personal, professional, societal and spiritual level. Leadership is often perceived as a natural recognition of individual excellence, but this perception needs to change. Just like not every great athlete is an effective captain, similarly, professional excellence does not always translate to effective leadership. So, health institutions need to acknowledge and integrate leadership as an independent and critical skill that requires capacity building.

What do you think is the role that other stakeholders and partners – government institutions, civil society organisations, and the media – in advancing women’s health leadership in India?

India is seeing a rapid increase in women leaders, with a significant contribution from women entrepreneurs. In fact, the government has done a brilliant job of putting forward gender-inclusive policies, such the 2017 Maternity Benefit Act and the recent Women’s Reservation Bill. However, institutions need to be more aggressive in allocating appropriate resources towards implementing these policies through evidence-based pilots. We need more consolidated efforts towards designing leadership and innovation tools based on scientific research. The media needs to become more responsible in capturing and demonstrating experiences and journeys of women leaders without romanticizing them as extraordinary, super-human beings. Women can also be ordinary, yet effective leaders.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future of women’s leadership in the health sector in India, and how do you see WomenLift Health playing a transformative role in achieving these aspirations?

Human beings experience several tipping points in life that mark a move away from the preconditioning of the brain to start thinking differently. They start experiencing a different, usually a better person within themselves and their holistic health improves considerably, impacting both their professional and personal growth.  It is key to leverage these moments to evolve into healthier, happier and successful leaders. The question is: can we enable more women and girls to experience such moments to unleash their potential and evolve into effective leaders in global and public health?

Based on my experience, I’d say YES. Majority of healthcare is delivered by women, so we need to add new dimensions to the concept of leadership in public health. This is a complex area, that needs more research, wider consultation, and systematic documentation.