In November 2018, I attended the Women Leaders in Global Health conference, hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It is difficult not to feel inspired and impassioned by a group of inspirational women with bold, forward looking ideas discussing leadership in global health, while being in an audience with 800 plus women, and a handful of men. The statistics are astonishing: 75% of the global health workforce is comprised of women, yet less than 25% are in formalised leadership roles.
As someone who has only very recently been introduced to the world of global health, the conference was an excellent learning opportunity for me as a woman. My background is in refugee resettlement with both NGOs and government. Several key messages resonated with me, including the idea that global health is a patriarchal system. This was powerfully stated by the key note speaker, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director General for Programmes at the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This set the theme for the day: women face an unconscious bias in the global health system, which is so deeply entrenched in our minds and the minds of front-line workers and policy makers, regardless of gender. How can any system be successfully led without encompassing the knowledge and views of all?
Dr Joanne Liu, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières, stated that by including women and creating inclusivity, we create a broader understanding of the system. Dr Liu further noted that we need to turn organisations upside down: health, first and foremost, happens in the home, therefore we need to focus on leaders at local and community level. If we want to make a difference in global health, we need to invest in communities and especially in women. Women are often the frontline workers in global health, however, without the support from leaders driving equitable health outcomes, inadequate policies are implemented. So why, in 2018, do we still see such a small percentage of women leadership in global health? We know what needs to be done, the research is there. How is this implemented? It is about altering mindsets and challenging the status quo through diversity, empathy and transparency. Annette Kennedy, President of the International Council of Nurses, Commissioner on the WHO Independent High Level Commission on NCDs, stated that we need “joint committees of influence”, emphasising the need for diversity.
Diversity, however, needs to go beyond gender. We need diversity across culture, academic expertise, lived experiences, perceptions and ideas. It is this diversity that will cultivate an environment of sustainable change, lead to new norms, and subsequently impact global health for all, in every corner of the globe.
I spent last week working with R4HC-MENA members and getting to know some particularly exceptional women in global health, some of whom are already in significant leadership roles; Professor Rita Giacaman from Birzeit University and Professor Şevkat Bahar Özvarış from Hacettepe University, who are taking a ground up approach working directly with conflict-affected populations in the Middle East. Others are being mentored to be the next generation of women leaders in global health. Having deepened my own understanding of global health, I am confident that the work of the R4HC-MENA programme, and other collaborations of this ilk, are taking a leading role to radically alter the statistics for women in global health.
R4HC-MENA Programme Coordinator