A resounding success! Reflections on the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference

On 12 October 2017, 390 women and 20 men from 68 countries and 250 institutions came together at the Stanford University campus in California for the first ever Women Leaders in Global Health Conference. The conference, hashtagged as #WLGH17 on Twitter, was organised by the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, along with many supporters, including Women in Global Health, who were an implementing partner.

Women make up 75% of the healthcare workforce globally, yet occupy less than 25% of the most influential leadership positions in global health. This discrepancy is not because of a lack of capable women leaders in global health; the stellar attendees at this conference were a testament to this. It is due to past and present discrimination that women face in advancing in their professions. So, to have a conference showcasing emerging and established women leaders in global health was something to be excited about, and I was thrilled to be in attendance at Stanford.

The scene for the day was set by Stanford University Provost, Persis Drell, who emphasised the importance of engaging, connecting, and collaborating, and who stated that, “the value of leadership is to empower others to have an impact, so that it’s larger than the individual contribution”. The day consisted of panels, vision talks, artist spotlights, and breakout sessions, where we heard from directors, professors, and former Ministers of Health on the challenges and opportunities for women leaders in global health. Each session was carefully curated to discuss various aspects of women’s leadership in global health, and the breaks provided time to network with like-minded people.

A key theme that emerged from the outset was that of diversity in global health leadership. Dr Michele Barry, Director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, spoke about the importance of diversity in her opening remarks, and I appreciated that the conference overall exhibited diversity. It was refreshing to see the many women of colour who were speakers at this conference, particularly esteemed women such as Agnes Binagwaho from Rwanda and Mamphela Ramphele from South Africa. Prof Binagwaho shared stories of misogyny she faced along her career path and advised emerging leaders in the audience to “be ready to fire back” at such discrimination. Likewise, Dr Ramphele talked about the struggles of growing up as a black woman in apartheid South Africa and using her identity as a source of strength. It was clear that her advice on knowing oneself resonated with many in the audience.

One such woman of colour that I was extremely excited to hear from was Sania Nishtar of Pakistan. Dr Nishtar has been a global health heroine of mine since my medical student days, and it was fascinating to follow her candidature for the role of the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year. Dr Nishtar described her global health journey, including the positive enablers who supported her along the way. She spoke about how a woman’s career is often like Lombard Street in San Francisco, with each turn representing a challenge to overcome. She called for a level playing field for women, and not just putting women in leadership positions out of sympathy. Her thoughts on the challenges of being a woman from Pakistan and overcoming constant gender stereotypes particularly hit home for me as a fellow Pakistani woman. She also made special acknowledgment of the supportive role that Women in Global Health played during the WHO Election by bringing visibility to gender biases in global health, when no other group was doing this. A personal highlight was meeting Dr Nishtar in person for the first time during a break and being able to congratulate her on her new role of Chair of the WHO High-level Global Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases.

The Emerging Leader Lightning Talks were another favourite of mine. Sixteen emerging and mid-career women shared their visions for global health in quick-fire two-minute pitches. Their stories were inspiring and left me feeling optimistic for the future of gender equality in global health. In closing the conference, Dr Roopa Dhatt, Co-Founder and Director of Women in Global Health, shared our Call to Action for women’s leadership in global health:

  • Increase visibility

  • Lift women up the ladder

  • Advocate for work-life advancement

  • Promote career advancement

  • Cultivate thought leadership

  • Address the gender data gap

The call (disclaimer, going through active editing) provided space for a healthy discussion on what we envisage for women’s leadership, and the things we can do as individuals and groups to enable more women to be in roles of global health leadership.

Finally, on a personal note, I particularly enjoyed connecting with my Women in Global Health colleagues. I have been volunteering as the Social Media Coordinator for Women in Global Health for almost two years now, and I am incredibly proud of the contribution our organisation has made towards gender equality in global health leadership since our creation in 2015. Living in New Zealand, it’s often hard for me to get to international events, so this opportunity to connect in person with teammates was incredibly uplifting and reaffirming. Overall, the first ever Women Leaders in Global Health Conference was a resounding success. Fortunately, we will not have to wait long for the next one! The next Women Leaders in Global Health conference will take place in London, 8-9 November, 2018. I hope to see you at #WLGH18 next year!

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