Fresh off the East Africa Leadership Journey’s very first cohort graduation, we spoke to Obstetric Gynaecologist, global health specialist and passionate menstrual health advocate Dr. Achieng’ Aling, originally from Kenya but currently living in Rwanda, discusses her perspective as a woman in global health and her journey towards leadership. Here is her insightful Q&A, shedding light on her learning, personal growth, and transformation.
Q1. What inspired you to work in health?
My inspiration to work in health stemmed from my personal experience of illness as a child. This happened when I visited my grandparents in a small village in Kenya, where access to healthcare was limited. When I fell ill, I had to be transferred to the capital (Nairobi) to get the medical attention I needed. This experience made me realize the importance of accessible and affordable healthcare, especially in low-income communities. I decided to become a doctor to help address the healthcare disparities that exist in my community and other underserved areas.
Q2. Could you describe your experience of being a woman in global health?
Being a woman in global health has been both challenging and rewarding. As a black African woman, I have had to work harder to overcome the biases and stereotypes that exist in the field. I have found myself to be the only woman in teams of all male experts in many instances and at times it was challenging to make my voice heard, but I persisted and was eventually able to earn the respect of my colleagues. I became a valuable team member and was able to contribute my unique perspective as a woman to the project’s success.
I also noticed that many young women are discouraged from pursuing careers in healthcare due to societal expectations. However, I have had the privilege of working with amazing women and male allies who have supported and encouraged me along the way. Through these experiences, I have learned the importance of solidarity and mentorship in advancing women’s leadership in global health.
Overall, my experience as a woman in global health has taught me that diversity is key to success in any field. It is important to recognize and overcome biases and embrace our differences, working together to create an inclusive environment where everyone’s voice is heard and valued.
Q3. What has your experience of leadership in health been, both as a leader and as one under the leadership of others?
It’s been multifaceted. As a clinician, I have led teams in delivering quality healthcare to patients. As a program manager, I have provided technical support to government agencies in health workforce planning. In both roles, I have learned the importance of effective communication, collaboration, and accountability in achieving success.
I have also had the opportunity to learn from inspiring leaders who have mentored and guided me in my career. Through their guidance, I have gained valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of working in global health and have been able to develop a nuanced approach to addressing health system gaps.
Q4. How have these experiences shaped your view of global health, and how has this impacted the way you work?
My experiences in global health have reinforced the belief that health is a fundamental human right and that healthcare should be accessible to all, regardless of their social or economic status. I have also learned the importance of local context in designing and implementing effective health programs. For example, many adolescent girls face barriers to accessing contraception, including limited knowledge about available methods, lack of access to health facilities, and social stigma around sexual activity. To address these barriers, I have collaborated with community health workers and local organizations to implement a comprehensive approach that included community education and outreach, and the provision of a range of contraceptive options.
In summary, my experiences have reinforced the importance of community engagement, cultural sensitivity, and innovation in addressing complex health challenges. They have also highlighted the need for gender equity in health systems and the importance of advocating for the rights of all people to access quality healthcare.
Q5. What gaps do you see in global health leadership, especially in relation to gender and equity from the perspective of an African woman in health?
There is a significant gap in gender and equity in global health leadership. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions, research, publications, and conference panel participation and there is a lack of diversity in decision-making processes.
There is need for more investment in research that addresses the specific health needs of women, including those related to reproductive health, mental health, and non-communicable diseases.
Furthermore, as an African woman in health, I have observed that the lack of diversity in leadership has contributed to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to health interventions, which does not take into account the unique cultural, social, and economic factors that influence health outcomes in different contexts. This has resulted in ineffective and unsustainable health programs that fail to meet the needs of local communities.
To address this gap, there is a need for more diverse leadership that reflects the populations they serve, and for more context-specific approaches to health interventions that are tailored to the needs of local communities.
Q6. What must be done to support more African women to rise to positions of leadership in health?
To support more African women to rise to positions of leadership in health, there is a need for intentional efforts to address the systemic barriers that hinder advancement. This includes advocating for policies that promote gender equity and inclusion, creating mentorship and networking opportunities, and investing in leadership development programs such as WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey. It also involves challenging the cultural norms and biases that perpetuate gender discrimination such as strengthening diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within organizations and creating a supportive environment for women to succeed.
Q7. What impact do you think initiatives such as WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey can have on representation across all levels of leadership within health?
They can have a significant impact on representation across all levels of leadership within health. By providing leadership development programs and mentorship opportunities, these initiatives not only shine a spotlight on the inequities of gender representation in leadership but help build women’s capacity to take up leadership positions. They also create a supportive network that enables women to connect with other female leaders in the field, share experiences, and learn from one another. This network can be particularly valuable for women who may face unique challenges or barriers to leadership, such as discrimination or limited access to opportunities.
Moreover, initiatives like WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey can help to address the gender gap in leadership positions and promote gender equity within the health sector. By increasing representation of women in leadership positions we can incorporate diverse perspectives, experiences, and approaches to addressing complex health challenges. This can lead to more effective and equitable health policies, programs, and services that meet the needs of all members of society.
Overall, such initiatives are essential in promoting gender equity and improving health outcomes globally.
Q8. As a member of the first East African cohort of the Leadership Journey, what would you say your highlights of the training and mentorship program have been over the past 12 months?
Participating in WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey has been an incredible opportunity for me to grow and develop as a leader. The program has provided a platform for networking and collaboration with other women leaders from across the globe, and the coaching sessions have been invaluable in providing guidance and support as I navigate my own journey in leadership.
One of the highlights of the program has been the opportunity to interact with leaders from different sectors and backgrounds, each with their unique experiences and perspectives. The program has been a great learning experience for me, and I have been able to incorporate many of the lessons learned into my work and personal life consequently being more at peace with my work-life balance.
Q9. What are the biggest lessons you’ve drawn from it?
The importance of self-reflection and personal leadership growth. Through the mentorship sessions, I have been able to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses as a leader and develop a clear plan for personal and professional growth.
Another key lesson is the power of collaboration and mentorship. Working with other women leaders from diverse backgrounds has helped me to expand my thinking and develop new approaches to leadership. The mentorship and coaching sessions have also been critical in providing guidance and support as I navigate my leadership journey.
The Leadership Journey has also taught me the importance of resilience in leadership. As a leader, I will face challenges and setbacks, but it is important to remain steadfast in my goals and persevere through difficulties. Through the program, I have learned strategies for building resilience, such as seeking support from mentors and colleagues, practicing self-care, and maintaining a growth mindset. These lessons will be invaluable as I continue to grow as a leader and navigate the challenges of the global health field.
Q10. How do you think they’ll impact you and those around you in the coming years?
I believe that the lessons and experiences from the Leadership Journey will have a significant impact on my personal and professional growth in the coming years. The program has provided me with a clear roadmap for growth and development as a leader, and I am excited to implement many of the lessons learned in my work.
I also believe that the program will have a positive impact on those around me. As a leader, I have a responsibility to mentor and develop other women leaders, and I believe that the experiences and lessons learned from the Leadership Journey will enable me to do so more effectively.
Q11.Do you have any words of advice for women in health looking to progress into positions of leadership?
My advice to women in health looking to progress into positions of leadership is to believe in themselves and their abilities. Women are often their own worst critics, and it is important to recognize and celebrate our achievements and strengths.
I would also encourage women to intentionally seek out mentorship and guidance from other women leaders. The experiences and insights of those who have gone before us can be incredibly valuable in shaping our leadership journeys.
Finally, I would urge women to be persistent and resilient in their pursuit of leadership positions. The road to leadership is not always easy, but with hard work and dedication, we can break down barriers and shatter glass ceilings.