Interview with Nancy Snyderman, speaker at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference

Dr. Nancy Snyderman is a head and neck cancer surgeon, network television correspondent, and advisor to Fortune 500 corporations and is one of the most trusted voices in medical communication.

She is a Visiting Consulting Professor in the School of Global Health at Stanford University and co-founded the Stanford University-NBC News Global Media Fellowship. She is also a Consulting Professor of Medical Communication in the School of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her corporate work began at Johnson & Johnson where she created online medical curricula for the public.

We asked Nancy on her views about the conference, gender equality in leadership and the media and power of storytelling.

What are you most excited about for the conference?

I have spent 30 + years going to medical meetings – they’re usually along one discipline. So to have a global organisation and a university put a stake in the ground and say global health is important but must be driven by innovation is a step in a different direction than just women’s health, refugee health, and the health of adolescents in developing nations. We’re going to have women, men, physicians, non-physicians, advocates, patients, and leaders who care about global health, all converging in one place to talk about state of the art with regards to the intellectual aspects to what it means to innovate on the ground, and of course, the need and necessity of measuring outcomes and sustainability.

What do you think this conference represents?

I think this conference represents a chance to do something that really hasn’t been done before and will be wonderful, and I mean, wonderful! The conference represents a chance for people of all geographical backgrounds and for women to recognise they must have a seat at the table and to exercise that voice at the table. Whether you’re 20 or whether you’re 60, to recognise that we all are there because we all give a damn about global health and I would say, women and children, because, it’s a core [to global health]. Helping women in developing countries means we help the whole family, we know that. The data is clear. We also need women in decision making centres of power, and where we haven’t seen that before is universities and major scientific organisations, so gender parity in the boardroom, and gender parity in the field, is phenomenally important to me.

What do you hope will come out of the conference in terms of actions and takeaway messages for the participants?

I’m probably not the right person to ask for this because I see global health and medicine through the eyes of a surgeon-journalist, but certainly if anything comes out this conference it’s going to be the need for gender parity, both at the high institutional levels and on the ground:the fact that women in the field can affect change for women and children in various parts of the world. But also, that we start to talk about what we can learn from our corporate partners. It’s interesting, I have background in Johnson & Johnson and general electorates and they recognised the need for diversity, beyond just colour, and made a call for it.. The fact that when governing bodies have the same number of women [as men] in the board seats, companies not only see things differently and act differently, they have a better return on investment. So, while RIO may be a very business term, I would argue that an RIO is exactly what non-profits and universities and global health leaders need to think about too. So, how to shape that RIO could be a very lofty goal but achievable outcome for this conference.

The buzz word surrounding the conference is “movement” - how do you see yourself engaging with the movement of Women Leaders in Global Health?

People learn through stories. Statistics matter, statistics are important for publications but statistics never tell the whole story. Human beings tell their story. So my job as a journalist all these years has been to tell complicated medical stories on the ground, whether it be in Haiti, Uganda, Tanzania, or the South Bronx, but to tell those stories through the eyes of the human beings affected. When you do that, people care. Data shakes people but it doesn’t really spur them to action. Seeing people suffer, seeing people achieve great things, seeing people win, and have their lives changed – microfinancing is a perfect example, to see how women have taken it upon themselves to create businesses that are sustainable and therefore freed their children, buy more animals, take care of their village, and even people who don’t understand economics can understand the power of microfinancing. So it’s those kinds of things we can tell the stories and make a difference.

We focused a lot recently in our movement, trying to show the statistics as a lot of people don’t realise that women in global health leadership positions are so few but I think it’s really true, that idea of having a story element as well. We had something at the WHA this year for the first time ever, called Heroines of Health where we gave out awards to women that were working in the field that weren’t necessarily head of the department, that were at middle management. This idea that some of them were doing really low level community work but were affecting great change in their community.

In South Africa there are women, the Avon representatives, who carry health messages and condoms and HIV messaging along with a tube of lipstick, who did more to change the health care in Soweto than a health minister. Give me a powerful motivated person on the ground any day over a health minister sitting in an office.

What role do you think the media plays, or can play, specifically in promoting gender equality?

The media serves as a lens, nothing more than that. It’s just a lens into what is, but what could be. Just look at the fact that today Saudi women can drive. I’ve been to Saudi many times. You know what people don’t know about Saudi is that against the law in Saudi Arabia to pay women less for the same job as it is for a man. So it’s easy if you don’t understand a culture to go, tsk tsk tsk, how awful that is, until you realise, wow, so a woman professor earns the same as a male professor? Yes, as deemed by law. And when I said to my Saudi professor friends yeah but how can you put up with this? They came back to me and said, you guys can’t even elect a woman president. I think we always have to be careful what the lens looks like. The role of the journalist is not to pontificate or to tell people what should be. It’s to say, here’s what is. What should be will be interpreted differently by the viewer.

Do you think from a global media perspective there’s anything that can be changed to further promote gender equality, or do you think that there doesn’t need to be any major change?

Well no, we all know, give me 50% of women and a table, and I can make the world better.

What do you think is going to be your main thing you’d like to get out of the conference yourself?

For me it’s going to be, not just reaching out to some world leaders who I know, but hearing more about what is needed on the ground. Too many times any of us at professor level go to these meetings, it’s the same people giving the same reports about the same things. I’m hoping to hear from younger people who have borne witness to global issues and to speak to gender parity and that gender parity becomes an increasingly focal part of this conference.

How do you engage with the global health community, particularly students and young professionals? What’s your best approach to reaching out?

I story tell. I don’t think you have to show anything, I think you end up being a storyteller. That’s the most important thing. Storytelling is literally nothing more than sitting down and telling stories. I really mean that, I think it doesn’t have to be visual, it doesn’t have to be with video, it’s literally telling a story. People are easy to engage. People could come to these conferences, and want to engage, they want to make the world different, so all I do is light the match. And I hope that people from different parts of the world will sit next to each other and that young women will feel brave enough, and I mean this sincerely, to speak to the older male professors like Peter Piot and introduce themselves. If there was ever a time to channel your inner Sheryl Sandberg. This is your meeting. This is where you lean in.

When people ask you for advice, students or young professionals, who want to follow in the same footsteps that you’ve done? What advice would you give in the world we live in today, for women who are entering global health and want to be storytellers?

I always say that the most important thing is to listen, not speak. Physicians, as we know, interrupt patients before the first 10 seconds of any conversation. So, if you want to get the best story from people, you sit back and observe and listen and you guide a conversation and you ask concise questions, but only after you have earned the trust of your subject, and I also think that once you’ve learned how to do that, being a global citizen and a communicator makes you a better physician, and when you have confidence in being a really good physician, it makes you a better storyteller.

In terms of, you’re a strong leader who’s quite involved with this community. How do you think we can go about involving other leaders who aren’t involved in the movement, particularly, the men who aren’t in the room?

Here’s the real problem; we’re talking about global health at an American university at a time when we’ve had three hurricanes in the span of a month, and a crisis in Mexico City. People have humanitarian fatigue right now. And that has to be recognised or we can’t move forward. It’s always ask, ask, ask, get, get, get, if people care more. People care a lot but have got to put food on the table, worry about the kids grades, and all that other stuff. You almost have to say to people, I’m not going to force feed you but I want to show you how much better the world can be with you in it, and make people want to be an integral part of the solution.

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