Interview with Sania Nishtar, President, Heartfile and short-listed nominee for Director-General, Wo

Sania Nishtar, SI, FRCP, PhD, is a Pakistani physician and former federal minister of the Government of Pakistan. She has strong civil society credentials as founder of Heartfile in Pakistan. Born in Peshawar, Dr. Nishtar graduated from Khyber Medical College with 16 distinctions, setting a college record. She holds a Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London and a PhD, from Kings College, London. Dr. Nishtar was also short-listed nominee for Director General of the World Health Organization this year.

We asked Sania on her views about the conference and gender equality in leadership.

1. What are you most excited about for the Women Leaders in Global Health conference?

I am excited because I can feel the beginnings of a palpable movement to promote women in leadership roles in global health. As one of the three shortlisted nominees, and the only woman nominee in the final shortlist for WHO Director-General, I have recently been at the centre of this discourse and can appreciate both its importance as well as the demand for it.

There isn't just a "glass ceiling effect" but a whole pipeline, which is leaking women all the way up to the top. In the space of human development, and in the pursuit of the MDGs and now the SDG's, the focus on women's empowerment and equality is auspicious and welcome but that doesn't address the imperative of equal access and equal opportunities when it comes to leadership positions. I am glad that this conference is not addressing this as a matter of one advocacy spurt, but is forwarding the existing movement. It is only when a call for change is sustained and repeated that it has a high likelihood of impact.

2. What actions and take away messages do you hope will come out of this conference?

I hope the call will focus on systemic and institutional approaches to women's leadership in global health. As a starting point, it is important to provide women with a level playing field in the workplace and to address core disparities and discriminatory behaviours, which women face in the workplace in multiple forms all over the world. This is a prerequisite to institutionalizing an environment where gender sensitive leadership can be cultivated.

This creates a number of imperatives for human resource polices, career structures, remuneration and retention policies, women protection laws, gender sensitive worksite safety approaches and a whole host of other gender sensitive worksite norms and practices. It is not enough to make a call for these institutional approaches, but essential also to outline modalities to institutionalise and mandate data disaggregation and explicit accountability arrangements, which can help monitor trends in an impartial manner.

A call can also be made for other approaches that reflect the pattern of practices. For example, rankings and league tables being established to track progress towards SDGs can give greater weight to gender variables. I would like to see such specific measures being reflected in the call. In addition, this meeting is being pitched as a movement, so with regard to that aspect, it would be pertinent to make a strong call for follow up measures so that the momentum can be sustained.

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

There are two ways that I want to engage in the movement and drive forward the agenda. I am part of various national and international initiatives, where I will work to mainstream gender equality into policies and practice and also, I commit to taking on specific responsibilities so that I can contribute to the call to action.

4. Do you have any tips or advice you would give to conference attendees on how to make this a memorable experience?

One of the most important things is to network, build relationships and explore opportunities to work together, share best practice and look at systemic challenges together. What’s critical also is to concretely create mechanisms to follow up, so that there is effective implementation of the call to action. Five or ten years from now, when, hopefully, quantum leaps have been made in this area, we should be able to reflect on this conference in hindsight as the important event, which lent impetus to a watershed movement. That will make it truly memorable and would be the conference’s legacy.

5. During the WHO DG election, we surveyed our followers about the priorities they felt most important for the incoming DG and whether gender equal leadership was a consideration. The most telling responses were:

- 78% respondents of the survey felt that “Gender factors into the perceived leadership qualities of the candidates and will impact how the next WHO Director-General is selected.

- 74% respondents based on their previous answer would advocate to the WHO governing bodies for a gender equal short-listing of the candidates during the first round of voting at the January WHO Executive Board meeting.

Do you feel that this is indicative of a shift in the thinking of Member States, the WHO and the global health community? What solutions do you see possible in the next decade in terms of ensuring that all voices are at the decision-making tables?

As part of that Director-General election process, I met with 191 country delegations mostly at the minister of health level, but some also at the head of state and foreign minister level. There wasn’t a single country delegation which disagreed with me when I outlined plans for mainstreaming equal gender representation at all levels of the organization. However, the emphasis placed on this varied from country to country. Some countries espoused gender mainstreaming as a key priority and hence were very vocal in their asks, others merely nodded in agreement when I raised this point. Where I was speaking to women leaders/ministers, there was a much higher likelihood of this aspect being stressed upon by member states.

In terms of the solutions, it is important to have women equally represented at the table. The recent 60% representative of women in the WHO Director-General’s cabinet is a step in the right direction and an important starting point. When women are represented at leadership positions and have voice, the likelihood of gender being used as a cross cutting lens for policy formulation and implementation is much higher—and that is our outcome of interest.

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