If not now, then when? Women Leading Bravely in Global Health

Did you know that 80% of students in global health are women, but less than 25% go on to lead global health efforts? Evidence suggests women in the global health field are often not visible or publicly recognized for their contributions. They often become discouraged for a multitude of factors and barriers – career, work-life balance, personal security, displacement, physical, cultural, economic, environmental – and many more.

The context of global health leadership is critical to set the stage for the future of global health from the perspective of advancing equity through an intersectional lens. Leadership in global health should consider geography, gender, and generation, as each perspective adds value to how we define problems and seek solutions. But how do we have these conversations? How do we take the seat and orchestrate solutions?

After an energizing GlobeMed Summit in downtown Chicago that acclaimed the need for #LeadingBravely, a dozen women leaders met for the first time on April 2, 2017 in an inaugural effort to challenge these issues and address how leadership in global health can fast-forward progress to realize gender equity by 2030. This meeting about ‘Courage and Companionship in Global Health Leadership’ was attended by representatives from GlobeMed, Women in Global Health, Global Health Fellows Program II, Global Health Council, Medtronic Philanthropy, Global Health Corps, Timmy Global Health, Accenture, and Going International.

As organizations working on leadership and with track records of collaborating effectively, we asked ourselves: What can our organizations do to collectively address the leadership gap in gender equality and more broadly diversity – as organizations that work on capacity building, collective learning, advocacy, and more? We shared the many collaborative initiatives we are already co-leading, and the holistic and equity-focused approaches we are taking that would lend themselves to enhanced collaborations, including events such as the The Future of Global Heath (TFGH), trainings (i.e. GlobeMed Leadership Institutes), and other platforms.

Based on our individual and organizational experiences, a few realizations emerged:

1. Women have made progress in becoming highly trained and qualified, yet stagnation is high in leadership positions. Women have been outnumbering men on college campuses in the US since 1988. Today we earn almost 60% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and 50% of all doctorates, law, and medical degrees[1]. In global health, across all sectors, women hold 38% of the top positions, and in the sectors with the most influence and power – academia, government, and the private sector – the numbers range from 10 to 25%[2]. While women have been 1:1 in qualifications in many fields since the 1980s, today we are only 1:4, and sometimes 1:20, in opportunities to lead.

2. Women are graduating from public health and global health programs and participating in global health leadership development at higher numbers. There are more women than men in the global health talent pool, but it is a talent pipeline where men rise to top leadership positions in some of the highest numbers and get paid more.

3. Women’s leadership in global health is crucial from a rights perspective and for better health outcomes. While global health is a field committed to achieving health and well-being for all, including dedication to women’s health, the progress continues to be slow. In certain settings, such as family services and sexual and reproductive health and rights, a rollback is occurring. Women around the world seem to face a multitude of setbacks: higher burden of disease, inability to make their own choices on their health and family planning, violence, child marriage, human trafficking, gender discrimination, and economic disempowerment. Extra attention must go toward developing women as leaders in order for us to overcome these burdens.

4. If not now, then when? Most discussions on women’s leadership take place in rooms full of women, and focus on building talent in the global health leadership pipeline. Women must be given space to more publicly and openly discuss the realities of a field that is failing in women’s empowerment in order for all of us to reach our maximum potential.

5. While data and evidence are needed, we can still work collaboratively to troubleshoot and close the gender gaps we know to be fact. Even with all the training, skills development, and research into how gender parity results in higher economic return and sustained growth (estimates show that the global economy would grow 28 trillion, which is by 26% globally[3]), it is unlikely that the women we train will receive a “fair, equal” paycheck before they retire. We have a responsibility to do something about this.

Building on our current collaborative efforts and what we have learned, we converged on focusing on how we equip the next generation of women global health leaders with the tools they need to move into leadership roles. It is clear that after formal leadership development in global health, students, trainees, members, and fellows are likely to enter settings where they are the minority for either their background or their mindset. What can we do to prepare them and what are we doing to disrupt or challenge the status quo of leadership in these settings? Pooling resources in curriculum, advocacy, convening, and other organizational knowledge is an important first step. In a time where women’s leadership is stagnant in global health, being disruptive may be the only way to correct for the sharp decline in gender equity in global health. It is important to be influencers for change.

This was the first opportunity to have a conversation on this critical theme, and we aim to maintain momentum on addressing this issue. In the spirit of GlobeMed and #LeadingBravely, we worked to AWAKEN global health leadership on that Sunday afternoon, and now as we reflect, may we be leaders that INNOVATE, BUILD, and EMPOWER to advance a healthier world.

[1] American Progress and Pew Social Trends: Women Leadership Gaps, The Data on Women Leaders, Women’s Leadership.

[2] Source: Just Actions, Date: 2016. Women in Global Health Data from 2016.

[3] Source: McKinsey, Date: 2015.

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