It took the United States almost 245 years to elect a woman vice president. Still, I can’t help but feel full of hope as I prepare to watch Kamala Harris take the oath of office on January 20th, becoming the first woman and person of color to serve in the nation’s second highest office.
In addition to Vice President-elect Harris, many women in the new administration inspire me. President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board features a diverse group of women, including Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the first-ever presidential advisor with a sole focus on racial disparities in health. There are the historic nominations of Janet Yellen as the first woman Treasury Secretary and Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. And for the first time ever, there will be an all-female senior presidential communications team.
The significance of women serving in these roles – and many others in the administration – cannot be overstated.
This group of powerful and talented women will bring diverse and vital perspectives to the new administration, including on the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressing health issues. Having leaders from a range of backgrounds and with varied lived experiences is crucial to designing and implementing policies that address the needs of all people across the country – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity and other identities.
Yet, despite the important strides, we are far from our goal. Women make up just over a quarter of the new Congress despite being half of the population. The situation is even worse in the field of global health, where women make up 70 percent of the workforce, but only 25 percent of leadership positions.
This is not for a lack of talented women. Rather, it is due to a number of barriers – at the individual, organizational and societal levels – that slow down and at times completely impede women’s career growth.
At the individual level, many women do not have access to the tools, peer support, mentoring and coaching they need to navigate the path to leadership. At the organizational level, women face a range of challenges – from sexism in hiring-related decisions and a lack of accommodations for pregnant women and mothers, to sexual harassment and discrimination. At the societal level, sexism pervades the lives of women in many ways – whether through gender-based violence, lack of access to reproductive health services or stereotypes that dissuade girls from pursuing careers in STEM. The list goes on.
Many of these barriers have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen frontline workers – the vast majority of whom are women – put their lives on the line to treat patients. The pandemic has led to a range of negative consequences for women, including spikes in domestic violence, reductions in sexual and reproductive health services and a disproportionate loss of employment.
While we cannot solve all these problems at once, we must take action in any way we can. I am proud to lead an organization working to ensure that the next generation of leaders in global health represents the entire population – not just half of it. We are doing this because we need the best talent to improve the health and lives of everyone.
Investing in women leaders is part of what it means to prioritize public health: they are more likely to advocate for issues that have been sidelined in the past, like clean water and sanitation, or stronger health care systems – the cornerstone for pandemic preparedness. One need not look further than the way women leaders around the globe have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, producing better outcomes on average than their male counterparts. Fostering women leaders in global health – and in all sectors – is simply the smart thing to do.
So, let’s celebrate the significant strides women have made toward equal representation at the highest levels of American politics. But after we’re done celebrating, let’s continue our fight to ensure that the millions of girls who watch the inauguration and start believing that they too can become leaders, find that they are actually able to reach their goals.