Q&A with Samara Andrade, North America Director

Q&A with Samara Andrade, North America Director

As a 2022 North America Leadership Journey alumna, what are you most excited about in becoming WomenLift Health’s North America Director?

There are so many things that I am excited about! At the professional level, I am looking forward to seeing where this work can go, both in North America and collectively with my sisters leading hubs in Asia and Africa. Attending the WomenLift Health global conference in Tanzania this year was so inspiring—to be in a space with so many alumnae from all over the world, as well as global leaders, women, and men, who were all there to engage in rich conversations about how to collectively address the multifaceted challenges hindering women’s progress in leadership roles in the global health sector. Every woman I spoke with at the conference inspired me, and that is true of every WomenLift Health alumna I have met, including those in my own cohort. It is a gift to work with such a dedicated group of women, Board members, and allies.

On a personal level, I am deeply passionate about gender equality and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) work, and now I get to focus on that full time. I started my career as a Gender Officer for UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. I got to think, eat, and breathe gender work. That meant working to shift harmful cultural, structural, and societal norms that impede women from having a role in leadership and decision-making in their families, communities, and countries; addressing issues like access to vital health care services, such as reproductive and maternal health care; actively working on the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence; and addressing mental health and psychosocial support. It also meant fostering multi-stakeholder partnerships to engage men as allies and partners in making meaningful change. Over the years, my roles have led me further away from this work, but gender has always been a piece of what I do—so I am thrilled to now be able to dedicate my time, resources, and efforts toward expanding women’s power and influence in the global health sector and working to close the gap in women’s health needs globally.

Could you share a pivotal moment from your own Leadership Journey that influenced your career trajectory and led you to this role?

I’m not sure that I can quantify a singular moment in the Journey—there were many moments, both in the official sessions but also, perhaps more importantly, the conversations I had with my fellow cohort members—that had an immense influence on my career trajectory and ultimately led me to this role. I entered the Journey at a time in my life where I had been stuck in a certain place and level in my organization, as well as in the sector. I felt I had so much to offer as a leader, and yet was passed over for promotions or opportunities to advance, all while male counterparts received increased opportunities and pay. I was also grappling with the loss of my mother after a period of caregiving that included shepherding her through the end-of-life process, and I was navigating the shifts in gender dynamics in my family with the loss of a matriarch.  The Journey provided an incredible opportunity to grow and learn in a safe space with other female leaders navigating similar experiences in the workplace and in the caregiving space.  It provided me with a sisterhood—a network of cohort members, coaches, mentors, staff members, and speakers—who pulled back the veil and gave voice to the issues women leaders face. The Journey supported us in thinking critically about our own authentic leadership voice, uplifting one another in a safe learning environment, and welcoming vulnerability and authenticity. Bringing that into both my work life and personal life has been a game changer.

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

While there is undoubtedly an incredible need to invest in women’s leadership in Africa and Asia, we often mistakenly think that North America is in a different place in terms of the progress in the sector. However, we are seeing a backlash against the power and space that women have fought so hard to gain, in the same way that we are seeing a rollback of women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights in North America, particularly in the United States.

That trend mimics what we are seeing in multilateral institutions and convenings that have historically prioritized women’s leadership and gender equality. For example, we’re seeing a re-emergence of “manels” (panels of primarily men) in spaces where they had all but been banished—like in the World Health Assembly or at United Nations meetings. We’ve also seen the repeal of women’s access to essential health services in the United States. This regression is shocking to us all. But it is also a wakeup call that while we have lofty goals, we have taken our focus off the fragility of progress. We cannot simply stand by while all of this happens. We must fight to continue advocating for not only an equal place in this sector for women, but also the recognition that each of us— regardless of sex, skin color, place of birth, ethnicity, religion, culture, or sexual orientation—has universal and inalienable human rights, including the right to health.  All of us—men, women, human rights and gender equality advocates—should reflect, personally and institutionally, on why this is happening and what we can do to safeguard the space we have and to advance on it.

I also see a unique opportunity for those of us in North America to actively work on the decolonization of the global health sector. Much of the funding and decision making  that drives global health work happens within institutions that are headquartered in North America or Europe. As we work to expand the power and influence of women’s roles, we can use a DEIB lens to shift power and decision-making to countries that face the highest needs and have the least resources to address them. We can also advocate for under-addressed, and often under-funded, global health issues in the sector, especially mental health and reproductive and maternal health.

Finally, we know that women working in global health in North America still face gender pay gaps, are less likely than male counterparts to get promotions and raises, and are expected to balance caregiving with work in a way that men are not. We have limited opportunities for paid maternity and child bonding leave (as a backdrop, the United States also has the highest maternal mortality rate among high-income countries), and often face sexual harassment at some point in our careers. All of this can lead to high levels of burnout and the exiting of women from the sector. We must do more to support women at all stages of their career and life cycle.

What do you think is the role that other stakeholders and partners can play in advancing women’s leadership in North America? Who should be involved but isn’t yet?

We know there is a complex interplay of individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and societal factors that influence all types of human behavior, and it is no different when thinking about the advancement of women’s leadership. It truly takes a village to effect change. We need institutions to be allies in driving that change, not only at the policy level, but also at the internal cultural and normative level.  We need the sponsorship of women, by both men and women, for leadership and visibility opportunities—from public speaking to stretch assignments, promotions, and advocating for appropriate compensation.  We need male allies who speak out; who raise the issues in leadership teams and spaces both internally and externally; who give up seats on “manels” and make space for women; who lead by example, working to shift norms and practices that prevent women’s advancement in the leadership space.  We also need to call into conversation the women who have not received support and have had to fight for each step of their career. When women are pitted against each other as competition, the toxicity that comes from that setup runs counter to our goals of advancing women’s leadership. So, we need to call these women into the conversation, to foster sisterhood and inclusivity—within the walls of institutions and outside in communities and friend circles—to be advocates for one another’s inclusion and advancement. Only together can we truly create diverse, inclusive spaces where we uplift one another.

Can you elaborate on your passion for gender equality and how it informs your strategic vision for fostering inclusivity and gender diversity in the global health sector?

Diversity brings innovation and creativity to problem solving. It creates more inclusive and resilient workspaces where we are better equipped to address the world’s most intractable health issues. The diversity of current and previous North America cohorts reflects the vision and mission of WomenLift Health in centering diverse experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds. It is one great reasons why I joined WomenLift Health— because my values, beliefs, and strategic vision for fostering inclusivity and gender diversity in the global health sector align with our mission.

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

I look forward to the day when women hold at least 55% of the leadership roles in the global health sector; when there is no pay gap between men and women; when there are no “manels” or token females on a panel in any space; when there is paid maternity and bonding leave; and when women can bring their authentic selves to the board room, the dinner table, and the community event.

I also envision a globally connected North America cadre of alumnae who are well positioned and poised to lead, who have male and female allyship within their institutions, as well as externally in their communities, families, and friend circles, and who actively work to shift power and decision-making away from North America as part of decolonizing the sector. I see WomenLift Health continuing to play a transformative role in achieving these goals through supporting women’s leadership development, partnering with stakeholders, institutions, and allies, and influencing the sector and drive meaningful change.