Gender Equality within the Global Health Workforce Workshop event summary

The Gender Equality within the Global Health Workforce Workshop was held on October 15th at the World Health Summit in Berlin, Germany. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Vice President of Friends of the Global Fund Europe, summed up the Gender Equality Within the Global Health Workforce nicely when she said, “One woman is important, but many women change situations.” The panel of speakers at the Gender Equality in the Global Health Workforce seminar featured strong, brilliant women, such as Heidemarie, Olawumni Oduyebo, Charlotte Rees-Sidhu, and Tana Wuliji. One of the first things I noticed going in was that there were no men on the panel. It might have been interesting to see what men are doing to utilize their privilege to help women reach a power equilibrium, but after looking at the gender distribution for the rest of the day’s panels, I am glad that so many wonderful women were at the head of the workshop, and it made the session feel like a safe space.

"One woman is important, but many women change situations."

- Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Vice President of Friends of the Global Fund Europe

As a young women’s health activist, this panel really struck me. It was powerful to see so many educated women taking action to bring about much needed change in the global health workforce. I am still only a high school student, so at times it can feel overwhelming to try and make any sort of difference, but I found I could really relate to the points the speakers made, and left the session with a good idea of what my next steps can be.

The speakers began by bringing up an imperative question: How can we strengthen women? In a world so historically male-dominated, women continuously strive for equality, and yet many still fall short. Women around the world are denied basic reproductive healthcare, and every two minutes a woman somewhere in the world dies as a result of complications from childbirth. Women make up half of the population, yet there are only eleven female Heads of State worldwide. It is crucial that women are put into positions of top leadership, especially as health and finance ministers. Men simply do not give birth, and cannot possibly understand the importance of financing women’s healthcare. Heidemarie discussed the creation and approval of a vaginal ring which prevents HIV/AIDS infection, and acts as a contraceptive, all while being undetectable by men. This is a hugely important invention, but it’s also incredibly sad that women haven’t been able to defend themselves from STIs and HIV/AIDS in the past without approval from men. In an ideal world, condoms would be sufficient, but the sad truth is that, globally, thousands of women get taken advantage of and raped on a regular basis. Women deserve the human right to be able to protect themselves from disease (as well as to prevent non consensual sexual conduct, but that’s another issue altogether.)

After the panelists introduced themselves, they each spoke to a variety of prompts. The first was, what are the challenges we face as women? Tana Wuliji, Technical Officer for Health Workforce at the World Health Organization (WHO), described how problems start very early in life, with pocket money and allowance given to children. Typically, men are given more fiscal freedom, and more personal funds, even from childhood. This resonated with me, as my parents gave my brother, who is one year older than me, more freedom as a child than I had. From this young age, gender inequity only increases. Tana mentioned that gender equality has made vast improvements over time, but stubborn barriers still remain. Women have grown accustomed to putting up with harassment daily, and having to work twice as hard just to barely reach the status men hold. Olawunmi Oduyebo, Founder of All Things Health Africa, described her setbacks as an immigrant woman of color. She also discussed how inequalities start at an educational level, similar to what Tana had described. In Nairobi, she mentioned, young girls have to make the choice at age 16 whether or not to continue their education (which could mean their family starves), or to prioritize their family, and cease their education. Charlotte Rees-Sidhu, Director of Monash University's Centre for Scholarship in Health Education (MCSHE) mentioned how medicine has been traditionally masculine, and although many medical schools have more female than male students, women are immensely underrepresented in leadership roles. She cited a Ginger Rogers quote that I love: “I do everything Fred does, but backwards, and in heels.” Women have to over-perform just to be considered passingly equal. Not to mention the built in challenges of motherhood, and how women seem to be expected to choose either a career, or a family, and if someone tries to choose both they are pigeonholed as either a cold, careless mother, or a lazy, distracted worker, if not both.

The second prompt was: how can we change these challenges and setbacks? Olawunmi preached staying authentic, and finding your own voice. Change begins with you, and so working hard, speaking up, and finding balance can change your own life, as well as inspire others. Tana talked about the concept of decent work--work that’s productive, with fair income, social protection, freedom to express concern and to organize, equal gender treatment, and job security. When we put focus on the education sector, and take new initiatives on the pay gap, we can bring about the goals of SDG 5. Charlotte mentioned that female leadership is key. Not only are women leaders proven to be efficient and a positive force, the more women in power there are, the more women become inspired to learn that they, too, can be leaders. She also plugged Monash University, and described how its female Vice-Chancellor and Dean have brought about programs that enable women, like more financial support for women and women with families, as well as a senior women mentorship program.

At the end of the panel discussion, we split into small groups to discuss case studies. I went with Sonia Singh, Senior Director at PwC Strategy&, to discuss gender equality in the private sector. Sonia spoke about the huge impact that women in leadership roles can bring. She mentioned that organizations are just as committed as ever, but progress seems to be slowing, if not stalling. Fifty percent of men believe that there is not an issue in the gender distribution of leadership positions, despite only one in ten leaders being held by women. In addition, when women strive harder, it tends to have negative social impacts. Women who are strong, unyielding, and confident tend to be perceived as harsh, cold, and bossy. Professional ladders are typically climbed through one’s network, but the issue is, women’s networks tend to consist of other women. And, sadly, this means that it’s more difficult for women to have connections with people in high positions of power, and thus they get stuck on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Fifty percent of men believe that there is not an issue in the gender distribution of leadership positions, despite only one in ten leaders being held by women

- Sonia Singh, Senior Director, PwC Strategy&

At the end of the panel discussion, we split into small groups to discuss case studies. I went with Sonia Singh, Senior Director at , to discuss gender equality in the private sector. Sonia spoke about the huge impact that women in leadership roles can bring. She mentioned that organizations are just as committed as ever, but progress seems to be slowing, if not stalling. Fifty percent of men believe that there is not an issue in the gender distribution of leadership positions, despite only one in ten leaders being held by women. In addition, when women strive harder, it tends to have negative social impacts. Women who are strong, unyielding, and confident tend to be perceived as harsh, cold, and bossy. Professional ladders are typically climbed through one’s network, but the issue is, women’s networks tend to consist of other women. And, sadly, this means that it’s more difficult for women to have connections with people in high positions of power, and thus they get stuck on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Sonia then brought up the concept of your sphere of control, and sphere of influence. Especially for young people, it can feel like it’s impossible to bring about real change in the world. However, there are so many things that we can control ourselves, and so much influence we can have on those around us, that change is easier than it may seem. We had a wonderful discussion about what we each can do ourselves to make a difference. Katie, an 11th grader from my high school, talked about her Women in STEM club, which seeks to raise girls’ confidence in their ability to succeed in advanced math and science courses. The main goals we came up with within your sphere of control were to have discussions, and look inside yourself. If you are having a conversation with somebody who does not believe that further action towards gender equality is necessary, ask them why. Make them elaborate, and engage in those debates. Share your experience with other women, so they can understand that they are not alone. Support your fellow girls, and give them positive reinforcement when they are scared of looking silly, or feeling stupid. Help others realize their unconscious biases, and work with them to change them. Mentor not just young women, but young men too. By fixing the mindsets of men at a young age, we can bring about a generation that recognizes the need for true gender equity. In addition, make yourself visible. Speak up for yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Set a positive example for others. Work to understand your own unconscious biases, so that you can improve yourself as well.

I thought the discussion we had was fantastic. As a young activist, it’s important to me to recognize the little things we can do to bring about big change, because there are times where that’s all we can do. If each person recognizes their own sphere of control, we can work together to diminish the gender inequality in this world. It’s a big world, but there are so, so many of us that can enact change. If we start young, leap from this burning platform of a situation we are in, and get everyone involved, the future truly can look bright.

Emily Gerson is a 12th grader at Brookline High School, in Massachusetts. She has been passionate about public health and women’s rights her entire life. Last spring, she was a part of a group of five students who organized an assembly to educate her school about reproductive health access, where she spoke about issues like sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening, access to safe abortion, contraception, addressing reproductive myths, and handed out pamphlets from Planned Parenthood. Emily interns at National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) Pro-Choice Massachusetts, where she had the chance to observe legal and political action regarding women’s health first hand. In the current political climate in the USA, Emily believes it is of the utmost importance to be involved in as many ways as possible to protect women’s reproductive rights, as well as underprivileged people’s right to equitable healthcare.

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