Engaging Men in the Gender Equality discussion: a conversation with Arush Lal, IntraHealth Internati

Arush Lal is the Global Policy and Advocacy Associate at IntraHealth International and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, as well as a Fellow with the Global Health Corps. There, he supports strategic refinement and expansion of advocacy and policy efforts to support health workforce development and health systems strengthening, serving as a key liaison to partners in US government, officials in Congress, multilateral agencies, country offices, and civil society/private sector organizations.

We sat down with Arush to ask him his opinions on gender equality and how men can engage in the conversation.

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WGH: In what ways have you noticed gender inequality at the leadership level during your career in global health?

AL: As a young professional in global health, one thing has been clear to me from the start—gender inequality is just about everywhere. It doesn’t take years of experience in the field to notice the inexcusable juxtaposition between women who constitute a vast majority of the health workforce and men who hold a vast majority of the leadership or management roles in the same areas. I’ve caught myself more than once asking, where did all these males in leadership positions come from, and where did all my female colleagues disappear to?

I’m fortunate to already have worked in a number of healthcare settings, both as a health worker and when training health workers in six different countries. It really is striking that across all contexts, spanning continents, cultures, languages, and income, one constant always remains—men are usually in power. From NGOs in Haiti, to government health centers in Peru, to hospitals in the Dominican Republic, to mobile clinics in rural Albania, I’ve worked closely with women -- who comprise a majority of the workforce as nurses, midwives, educators, and physicians -- and men who were calling the shots, as directors or managers of the programs we served.

Many times, when we talk about gender inequality at the leadership level in global health, we often tend to ignore the system of inequality that surrounds the health system as well. Not only are men often head physicians or directors of their programs, men are also more likely to be heads of households, policymakers in the government, renowned academics, and respected donors and philanthropists. In my view, this tends to foster a world that inevitably favors the advancement of men, while women continuously face an uphill battle building their careers.

WGH: Where do you see opportunities to improve the inequality? Are there strategies you’ve seen implemented or used yourself that have helped?

AL: Because gender inequality is so ingrained within our health and societal systems, I believe it can only be improved one way – boldly and intentionally. It’s been proven time and time again that women often get passed over on leadership roles despite equal or better qualifications and face significant remuneration disparities, despite equal work. Until purposeful steps are taken to ensure women in global health are as valued at the highest levels as they are at the lowest, progress will simply remain at a standstill.

There are several strategies I’ve seen and used myself that I feel have helped turn the tide on gender inequality in global health, even if in smaller and more nuanced ways.

I think initiatives like Women in Global Health’s pledge to only participate in panels with gender parity are a great example of cementing women as equal voices in the health workforce. Pledges like this, however, need to be accompanied by tireless commitment and engaged colleagues. For example, on a recent high-level forum I was helping plan, I referenced the pledge and noted early on that we must all commit to having gender parity in each and every event. Another example is partnering with other groups that are often marginalized to join forces for increased impact. This means intentionally collaborating with underrepresented groups like youth associations and local health workers from rural communities, especially across the Global South.

Finally, it’s critical to focus attention on this issue through any and all skills and resources available. As a fellow with Global Health Corps, I’ve been working with IntraHealth International and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition to better support and recognize the impact of female health workers, as well as the impact that investing in health systems has on empowering women. Through policy recommendations including our new fact sheet, we are pushing this issue in as many venues as possible, including in briefings to government leaders at high-level events like the Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health, the G7/G20, and the World Health Assembly.

WGH: What do you do to get people around you interested in working with gender equality? (i.e. in your workplace, personal life, etc.)

AL: As a younger voice in global health, I feel fortunate to be focused on gender inequality early on, so I can ensure I am addressing the issue in all aspects of my personal and professional life moving forward--such a pervasive issue really does take a lifelong commitment.

One way I am working with gender equality is to listen often and openly to all women speaking out about the issue. Keeping an attentive ear toward what marginalized voices in this community are saying ensures I’m aware of the most severe barriers that hinder the progress of women, as well as enabling a better understanding of how I can promote their voices and empower their growth as equal partners in global health.

Furthermore, I try my best as a male in the room to see that female colleagues receive the equal opportunities and recognition they deserve, from encouraging them to contribute to discussions, to asking their opinions on key initiatives, to highlighting their impact on organizational missions. Finally, I make it a point to push for gender parity wherever I have power, and publicly point out where we fail to deliver on this promise. This includes assembling teams with gender parity, featuring women voices wherever possible, especially female voices that are underrepresented, in addition to vocalizing support for gender equality through social media, blog posts, and high-level events. I am constantly pushing my team and my peers to think about how intersectional issues in gender inequality affect our own projects, and that we must be firm in our commitment to realizing the change we need.

WGH: Solving inequality requires an ‘all hands on deck’ response, we need all genders to address and engage in the issue. Therefore, what role do you think men can play in addressing this inequality?

AL: It really is on all of us to address gender inequality, both in global health and across society. Men have a pivotal role to play in this, as we often carry the power of privilege -- and the responsibility to use it wisely. For too long men have been comfortable sidelining or undermining the role of women in leadership positions. This is an especially painful truth in global health, where we fight inequities daily while ironically continuing the dark legacy of gender inequality in our own workplace.

All men should commit to basic steps to address this—listening to female colleagues and women voices on the frontlines, vowing to only participate in events or panels that achieve gender parity, pushing for the inclusion of gender inclusive practices that value the contribution of women (who make up to 70% of the health workforce and $3 trillion into the health system), and committing to fight against systemic barriers that prevent women from reaching their full potential in their careers and in society.[VB1] As men, we need to be a lot more comfortable passing the mic, rather than taking it. The world advances when we truly listen to those who haven’t been heard.

WGH: From a societal perspective, what changes and adaptations do you think are necessary to highlight this issue and address it as a community?

AL: First, I think a key change must be made in the way we in global health look at ourselves as a field. I feel many times, as a sector that is devoted to fighting global inequalities of all forms, we falsely believe that we can do no wrong ourselves. This “holier-than-thou” mentality has allowed some profound injustices to quietly continue, including the grave issue of gender inequality. Admitting this is as a sector is a critical first step. Next, we must be open to change, and embrace the recommendations of women who have been voiceless and powerless for so long. Finally, we should focus our efforts on truly committing to the issue as a core tenet of all programs and strategies we undertake. Not only does this make sense economically—with a $28 trillion increase in global GDP possible if women were able to participate equally in the economy—it’s quite simply the right thing to do.

We must be steadfast and not lose momentum, re-framing gender equality as an unquestioned expectation, not a lofty goal.

WGH: What advice do you have for young men regarding gender equality and moving forward?

AL: Young men—we are in a unique and special place in history to truly make gender inequality a thing of the past. We have countless years of evidence and mountains of data proving that our world only moves backward when women hold unequal footing in society. It’s crucial we make it a point to dismantle barriers that hold women back from achieving their full potential as partners in global health, hearing what our female colleagues, friends, and family have to say and applying these lessons to foster a world that finally engages all of us. Without 50% of our population fully empowered to make the change we want to see, we will struggle to achieve global goals, including the most critical targets in public health. Mentor and encourage each other in this initiative, support leaders who are like-minded in pushing for gender equality, and never be afraid to speak up when you witness an injustice to our female counterparts. Our entire generation suffers without this.

WGH: In your opinion, how will we reach gender equality?

AL: Untangling the mess of gender inequality from cultural norms, societal pressures, status quo, and expectations is extremely difficult. Gender inequality is so complicated because it’s not simply a black and white issue—it’s rooted deep within our collective, and ingrained throughout our childhood and early careers. Leaders who fail to make the necessary, intentional, maybe even controversial changes required to tip the scales to equilibrium perpetuate this cycle. In my opinion, we can only hope to reach gender equality when men reflect intentionally and seriously on their role in levelling the playing field once and for all. We have to train the next generation, especially young men, in a world of uncompromising gender equality. We must empower our female colleagues, and bring out the most marginalized of voices to the forefront, so we can learn where we have made mistakes and how we can revise our programs to be inclusive for everyone. And we must always be open to the profound, sometimes uncomfortable changes that gender equality requires for the good of our future. Because I have found, as many others have as well, that when we invest in women and gender equality, the world moves forward and so do we. It is time we commit to this once and for all.

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