A New Gender Majority in the WHO Leadership Team Announced or Man Bites Dog in WHO

‘The new WHO senior leadership team reflects my deep-held beliefs: we need top talent, gender equity and geographical diversity to deliver.’

- Dr Tedros Adhanom, Director-General World Health Organisation. Twitter 3 October 2017

The arrival of a new Director-General in WHO always generates high expectations and this was certainly true of Dr Tedros Adhanom when he took up post on 1st July. But this time expectations may be even higher than in the past, generated by the open competition and candidate campaigns. Through the election campaigning the world knew more about the priorities of the incoming DG than we knew about previous candidates chosen by Member States behind closed doors.

So after the first 100 days is Dr Tedros the leader and game changer in global health we have been waiting for since Gro Harlem Bruntland left the office in 2003? Last month Dr Tedros has announced WHO’s senior leadership team and advocates for gender in global health have reason to be optimistic about this new style DG.

Over 60% of the new line up of Deputy DGs (two this time instead of one) and Assistant DGs are women and the leadership team come from 14 countries and all WHO regions. Both Deputy DGs are women. This diverse line up at the top of WHO is indeed a welcome break with the past.

When I read the announcement I did a victory dance shouting ‘Yes! The DG WHO understands that gender equal leadership is smart global health’ (which is the truth advocated by the Women in Global Health movement). And then I thought that the composition of the new WHO team should not be a cause for celebration. As ever, ‘dog bites man’ is not worth reporting but ‘man bites dog’ hits the headlines. It should be unremarkable that 60% of WHO’s senior leadership are women. Why should we celebrate because talented, experienced women get top jobs in global health, especially since women are the majority of the global health workforce? Sadly, we are a long way from this being every day news. It has been ‘man bit dog’ this week at WHO. An important myth has been shattered ie the myth we hear from the apologists for global health #allmalepanels ‘manels’ (all male speakers’ panels) that ‘there are no women out there’ in global health. Well, Dr Tedros has answered manel apologists this week, tweeting ‘Gender parity is possible if we are prepared to admit there are talented women around us. Problem is we don’t admit that they exist.’1 So first a victory dance and then two yawns. First yawn because I could have predicted that some critic would see the list and say ‘women in top jobs in WHO? It has been done before and it didn’t work last time’ (Bruntland also appointed women to her senior team). Well, appointing men to leadership positions in global health has been done before – over and over and over again – and the world still has Cholera, scandalously high maternal death rates in some places and the poor die of conditions that are minor events for the rich. From that we might conclude that male leadership of global health has been tried before and only been a partial success. Dr Tedros therefore was absolutely right to opt for smart global health and appoint a gender balanced team.

And my second yawn: it was also predictable that some critics would say that the women now appointed to WHO’s leadership team ‘have to prove themselves’. Read the CVs of those women and it is clear that Dr Tedros has chosen a diverse group of men and women with experience and talent to match. Anyone in any new job has to prove they can deliver. But his female appointees don’t have to prove their competence any more than their male counterparts. Underlying the assertion that these senior women have to prove themselves is the gender biased notion that, as women, they don’t really belong at the top. They should be grateful to have been appointed and must now prove they can do the job as well as the men they have displaced. If I wasn’t so busy yawning at this point I would say ‘Get over it! Women have a right to be in leadership positions in global health. Welcome to the new normal.’ So having danced my victory dance, back to the real world. The stars are aligning at WHO and gender advocates are keen to support the new DG in his ambition to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) which will both benefit women’s health and be delivered by women in the global health workforce. We share Dr Tedros’ view that ‘…… healthy, empowered girls and women have the potential to build stronger communities, and nations, and ultimately transform entire societies.’ 1

But the clock is ticking not only for UHC but for achievement of the SDGs in general. The health SDG agenda is broad and money is limited. Urgent work remains to be done on the unfinished maternal and reproductive health MDG, of central importance to the lives of women and girls. But neither UHC nor the other health SDGs will be achieved by the end date of 2030 unless gender equality is integrated throughout everything WHO does. A gender balanced senior leadership team is a critical first step. Next, we look forward to hearing which of the two Deputy DG’s will be appointed as WHO’s Gender Champion, accountable for driving this transformation throughout WHO and its regions. And we look forward to a new revitalized Gender Strategy for WHO with resources, benchmarks and accountability measures to ensure WHO meets its own internal targets and the gender equality targets for the UN system. Moreover, we also are awaiting to see what will be the game changing steps he and his leadership team are willing to take, to keeping walking the talk. There are deep rooted organizational challenges that unfortunately top leadership can’t uproot without some out of the box ideas. Is the dance that WHO needs to have a lasting advancement in gender equality and women’s empowerment in its own house.

Women in Global Health, as a worldwide movement, congratulate Dr Tedros on the achievements of his first 100 days in post and particularly, on the choice of such a strong and inclusive senior leadership team. We look forward to the next steps and stand ready to support Dr Tedros and his team to achieve smarter global health.

Those who can’t see women in global health worthy of leadership positions are either gender blind or mixing with the wrong people - probably both.

References 1. Dr Tedros Adhanom, Director-General World Health Organisation. Twitter 3 October 2017

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