Advice for women leaders from women leaders

The panel at the Women Leaders in Global Health conference. Photo by: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The Women Leaders in Global Health conference held in London this month brought women leaders together from various sectors to share experiences and offer advice through talks, panel discussions, and interactive sessions, amid outrage after a number of women could not attend because they were denied U.K. visas.

“Women don’t have the inherent advantage that men have in society of being taken as a leader — you have to really prove yourself,” said Anita Zaidi, director of vaccine development, surveillance, and enteric and diarrheal disease programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Devex spoke with some of the women leaders present at the conference to gain a deeper insight into their routes to success and advice for others.

“How many of us are truly ensuring that our ceiling really is the floor for those who are younger than ourselves?”

— Julie Lyn Hall, chief of staff, IFRC

Change the culture

Julie Lyn Hall, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies chief of staff, director of the office of the secretary general, and special adviser for health, called on women to challenge, and even reverse the current working culture.

“My generation … many of us were the first to go to medical school ... we were the first here, the first there, the first that — it becomes quite a privileged position,” Hall said, calling on women to break down barriers for future female leaders.

“We do have to look honestly at ourselves ... How many of us are truly ensuring that our ceiling really is the floor for those who are younger than ourselves?” she said. “Or how many of us are actually acting as ladder-kickers — who enjoy that privileged position of having been the first; have thought that we’ve fought a greater fight than anyone else could fight; and not necessarily helping younger women come up?”

Praise others

Going further, women need to encourage and support other women to pursue and take up positions of leadership in their careers, Dr. Joanne Liu, international president at Médecins Sans Frontières, told Devex.

“When we see potential, we should tell people … ‘keep going.’”

— Dr. Joanne Liu, international president, MSF

There’s a great need for people — both women and men — to be more vocal in praising others, Liu said. She said that she was fortunate to have people who believed in her and told her she had potential throughout her career.

“When we see potential, we should tell people … ‘keep going,’” Liu said. “Collectively, between each other, we don’t do that enough … when I see people who are achieving things or doing things ... I just say ‘wow, that’s fantastic,’” she said.

Mentors aren’t just for young professionals

Often, Liu said, it was people she considered mentors who gave her the courage to move forward in her career, and the further Liu progressed, the more advice she sought.

“Now, as international president, I reach out to people all the time — more than ever. The more responsibility you have, the more mentor[ing] and inspiring spirit you will need around yourself,” Liu continued.

“For me, a mentor is someone who believes in you when you don’t believe enough in yourself.”

“I have a lot of mentors and I have mentors in different time zones,” she said, adding that when she needs advice or help immediately, being able to call on people no matter where you’re located is helpful.

Find people who disagree with you

“In leadership roles, we do have a bad tendency of surrounding ourselves with people who are agreeing with us and that’s a huge mistake,” Liu said.

“The best advice I would give for leaders is, you should always have someone close to you who disagrees with you,” she told Devex.

“I have people on my board that I totally disagree with,” she said. “But that’s important because they allow me to make my argument precise; they allow me to make sure I have no blind spots; and, once in a while, they’re right.”

Liu advised other leaders to seek out diverse mentors. “Being in this modern world, you should have mentors from different backgrounds — from a cultural background, philosophical background, professional background — because it’s always easy to go and seek advice from people who are like us,” she said.

For Liu, this even extends to politics.

“If you’re a very left [wing] person, you should talk to the more right [wing] people and vice versa,” Liu said.

Learn to read the room

“One really key skill is to figure out how to read a room; how to read what others are expecting from you,” Gates Foundation’s Zaidi said, adding that it’s definitely a skill that can be learned.

“There are two things to being a leader: One is the skillset and the other is being yourself … and the skills are all related to emotional intelligence,” she said.

Being able to read a person’s body language: What type of mood they’re in; what they’re expecting from you; and whether they are looking to you as the decision-maker, or alternatively as a mediator to lead a participatory decision-making process, are all emotional intelligence skills your leadership approach will need to suit, Zaidi explained.

How can we bridge the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development? #GlobalDevWomen Leadership Weeks explores tips for professionals and organizations on how to reach gender parity through advice articles, op-eds from industry leaders, online events, and a virtual career fair for mid-senior level women professionals.

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About the author

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    Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters is a Reporting and Communications Associate based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to Devex’s global development audience. Lottie is a recent graduate with a background in geography and journalism, taking a particular interest in grassroots international development projects. She has worked with organizations delivering clean water and sanitation projects globally.