Seizing This Moment, with Diverse Women at The Helm

The dearth of women in leadership positions across sectors is an issue of paramount importance on a global level. The global health sector has distinctly seen these disparities, even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. The amount of time it would have taken – before COVID-19 – to reach gender parity in senior leadership positions in global health, according to the 2020 Global Health 50/50 report, was 54 years. The pandemic is likely to set this number back given its disproportionate impact on women and girls, including that many women are considering downshifting or leaving the workplace entirely.

While women make up 70% of the health field, only 5% of global health leadership positions are held by women from low- and middle-income countries. Despite growing attention to these imbalances in recent years, a majority of community and home health caregivers are women, and in many countries, are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response.

As we confront the most challenging global health crisis we have ever seen, there is an urgent need for diverse women in leadership positions – shaping the funding, programs and policies governing our response. This is important so that we are not missing out on half of the world’s talent pool and our ability to learn from their lived experiences.

Today we are seeing and experiencing what happens when leaders do not prioritize the health needs of women. This is both a reason, and an outcome of the low on representation of women in leadership positions. Women quickly bear the brunt of the pandemic’s social and economic fallout, and we have seen growing barriers to women being included at decision-making tables. And of course, women and the challenges they face are not all the same – for women in low-income countries, these burdens are manifold.

As we rethink and re-build our COVID-hit health systems and health workforce, we have an opportunity to learn and do better – and doing better must include more women in leadership, from all around the world.

In October 2020 more than 2,000 women leaders and male allies gathered for the Women Leaders in Global Health conference to discuss the path toward achieving gender equality in health leadership. Like many other gatherings in 2020, the pandemic forced the conference to go virtual, making key features of in-person meetings – like side conversations and socializing – an impossibility. However, going virtual pushed us to take a new, hard look at how the conference itself can better reflect the kind of diversity and inclusion we must see in the field.

Going virtual – and making the conference free and open to all – gave us the ability to reach a much broader audience. As leads of the international steering committee and the convening organization respectively, we prioritized women from countries underrepresented at global health decision-making tables, and designed days tailored to key regions of the world, scheduled accordingly in their time zones. We were able to step away from protocols that often define formal gatherings and create refreshingly honest conversations between people with lived experiences.

In the end, 81% of speakers were from low- and middle-income countries, 87% of those who attended this year’s conference had not done so before, and participation was truly global.

The Women Leaders in Global Health Conference tapped into a desire to build regional and country connections that foster sharing and learning. The engagement of a broad conference audience, with, for example, 45% of participants from countries in South Asia, reinforced the value of more targeted county owned and led activities.  Inspired by this conference, India is now planning its own Indian Women Leaders in Health meeting with the goal of developing a roadmap for elevating Indian women leaders in Indian health institutions. It will be created by diverse stakeholders from across India and will be widely disseminated not only inside the country but also with South Asian partners.  Likewise, India looks to incorporate learnings from other South Asian countries into the development of this roadmap.

In addition, the rich discussions at the WLGH conference resulted in other recommendations and perspectives on what must be done to achieve gender equality. Among many, these four points stood out as key to advancing an equality agenda.

  1. Make Gender Equality a Core Organizational Strategy. It shouldn’t take a crisis for organizations to prioritize diverse leadership, which has been proven to have a positive impact on organizational performance. Simply, it’s a smart recovery strategy.
  2. Redesign the Table for Women. To ensure that diverse voices are prioritized at all levels, we must understand the political nature of global health – and its history – and take steps to reshape it for a world where diverse women and girls are at the center.
  3. Lean Out.Change cannot happen by women alone.  Men must actively and intentionally choose to ‘lean out’ so women have more opportunities to advance.
  4. Empower Younger Voices. As the movement for diversity and equality in health leadership continues, we heard from many people about the importance of mentoring young people, especially young women – ensuring their voices and opinions are heard and considered, especially for policies and decisions that impact their lives and future.

We know that greater diversity at the decision-making table sparks innovative solutions to complex problems and improves health outcomes. We know that when women’s voices are heard, whole societies reap the benefits – from better sanitation services to greater economic development.

This crisis risks a major setback to gender equality, but it is not the only path. We must actively challenge the status quo and push for broader change in the environments in which women live and work.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc around the world, but it can also push us to do things differently. By seizing the moment to prioritize diversity and inclusion – in our conferences and at our decision-making tables – we have the chance to truly build back better, for all.

Dr. Renu Swarup is the Secretary, Government of India, heading the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science and Technology.

Amie Batson is Executive Director of WomenLift Health.