From a young age Dr Anbar Ganatra nursed the dream of becoming a dentist. As a teenager, she sought the mentorship of an influential figure in the dental field. Witnessing the profound impact her mentor had on people’s lives, she was encouraged to pursue a career in dentistry and more broadly, in public health.
Now, as the Sub-County Medical Health Officer for Gatundu South in Kiambu County (Kenya), Dr Ganatra is using her passion to bring health care to rural communities, working closely with community health volunteers to coordinate health promotion, disease prevention and early detection of disease. In this interview with WomenLift Health she talks politics and leadership, and urges women to defy barriers, speak up and embrace their potential to lead. Read on for more.
Q: Could you describe your experience of being a woman working in health?
I cannot describe the experience as black and white, good or bad. It’s a mixed bag of experiences, each of which has played an important role in shaping me. When I started off as a junior dentist I had to “do time” just like any other junior, whether male or female. That is longer shifts, being on call at all times – and that is all needed to improve our clinical expertise.
I later rose up the ranks to take up a management role in the hospital, where I realized it was a male-dominated space. Working in different spheres – the public health sector, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), and the Kenya Dental Association (KDA) – I have noticed that some roles are specifically allotted to women because they seem more “feminine”. In these settings, I have seen women in the room get up to serve tea, even though we were all equal in terms of our job description.
I did face resistance when I tried to implement change or demand what was right. I was told I was too aggressive, and that I needed to change my approach and understand the unhidden rules of a patriarchal society. I must admit that there are times I have been forced to fit into this box, so as not to be too “abrasive”. But there are also times when I’ve stood my ground and been tough. It’s all part of the experience.
There was a time when I would sit and worry about the repercussions. Now I know it’s all part of the game. You can’t always get it right, but you can learn from it and look ahead!
Q: Why is it important for women in health to activelt participate in politics and leadership within the sector?
We have untapped leadership potential among women. Watching Mercy Nabwire, the treasurer of KMPDU, lead among many men with grace, strength and poise is inspiring. We are too few women in leadership, and we need to step up to these positions.
Q: What barriers or misconceptions of health leadership would you say keep women from seeking top leadership positions in health?
A woman has to balance her life in a way that a man doesn’t necessarily need to. Society is more forgiving toward a man who is “over” working or who does not have work-life balance than it is toward a woman in the same position.
Leadership positions are seen to be more time-consuming, requiring political aptitude and mindfulness. Stereotypes about women include assuming we will not be able to adapt to the political murkiness, so it’s better for us to stay in our comfort zone.
Q: How can these barriers be addressed to create a more supportive environment for women to enter and succeed in health leadership?
One way we can address these barriers is by having more of us women share our stories to inspire more women to break out of their comfort zones and take up leadership positions. Women don’t win because we don’t run, and when we do run, we run against each other.
We need to break these barriers. We need to challenge our male counterparts and realize that losing is part of the game, but we must play! We must also create environments that are enabling for women to run for political posts. The KMPDU post that I ran for in 2021 was not easy. I remember during the election campaign period all the doctors were traversing the country, and that was a very physically demanding task for me. I was not able to drive around 47 counties to meet doctors. Being a newcomer, I also did not have any political allies with whom I could travel. I wanted to win my election as an individual, not as a political ally. Running my own fully online campaign with a secretariat helped me win.
We also need to change the narrative that there are certain posts that are more suited to women. All posts can be filled by women. We are competent and do not need to stick to the script that says, for example, that women make better treasurers and are not suited for positions such as CEOs.
Q: What has your biggest lesson in politics been, in regard to seeking positions of leadership at the highest level?
My biggest lesson has been to just go for it! The odds were against me, and I had many colleagues and well-wishers warn me not to vie, saying I would be wasting my time and money and that I would face embarrassment if I lost.
We all try different things in life, we win some, we lose some. But losing an election is public. The minute you learn that everything is temporary including winning and losing, you will take more risks and win more in life, as well as lose more.
Q: What differences have you observed between men’s and women’s approaches to health leadership- and what can women seeking to lead learn from these approaches?
Men are more flamboyant. They are proud of their achievements and flaunt them. They are also more decisive and move ahead with their decisions, figuring things out as they go.
A woman on the other hand will often play small, be “humble” and may hesitate to make difficult decisions, because a wrong decision may be too costly. As women, we must be proud of who we are and what we bring to the table, and we must be more confident in our abilities to lead.
Q: Are there specific skills that men often display and deploy that women could/should adopt to grow into leadership positions within health and challenge the status quo?
Men support each other. The “bro code” is real. Even if the politics gets dirty, it never goes beyond politics/work and bitter political opponents will remain friends or at least cordial with each other, even if only in private. As for women, we often fail to draw the boundary between politics and life outside of politics. We often take politics beyond what it is – just politics. This means it can also get lonely for a woman in leadership. We must change that.
Q: How are these lessons influencing your own approach to fighting for the rights of women in health as leaders, caregivers and recipients of health?
My personal experiences, including the negative publicity I’ve endured and continue to face as a leader in health, motivate me to build a winning story for myself. Through this, I hope that more women will be inspired to be bold. I have several special nicknames in the political space in the Union, “flower girl” (often used in a derogatory manner to refer to women as accessories rather than leaders) being my favorite. I embrace it and continue to prove that I am not a flower girl, I am an individual who is determined to bring about change in the healthcare sector.
Q: Lastly, what advice would you give to other women in health who inspire to lead?
Go for classes in leadership, public speaking, the art of negotiation and persuasion. Equip yourself with skills that will enable you to lead. Leaders are not born; leaders are made. Make yourself one.
This article is part of a mini-series on Women in Health navigating organizational politics. Register here to join our East Africa Power Up webinar on 23rd August 2023 from 2:00pm EAT, where you will learn more about navigating politics in the workplace and connect with other mid-career women who are breaking barriers and leading the charge for equal gender representation in global health leadership.
To learn more about the East Africa Leadership Journey program click here.