How men fit into the quest for more women leaders in global health

Photo by: from Pexels

LONDON — The overwhelming majority of women attendees and speakers at the Women Leaders in Global Health 2018 conference provided a sharp contrast to increasingly criticized all-male conference panels.

“There hasn’t ever been a forum for women to come and talk about all of the issues that they face in global health,” said Anita Zaidi, director of vaccine development, surveillance, and enteric and diarrheal diseases programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the funders of the event. “So, there’s a lot of pent up emotion right now that women want to get out and we wanted to create that space, which I thought would not have been there if we had a gender balance.”

“Men as listeners is still an important way of showing solidarity, support, and empathy to the issue.”

— Tobias Denskus, senior lecturer and MA program coordinator, Malmö University

Still, men must be invited to the table and involved in discussions if gender equality is to be achieved — particularly at the leadership level, said Heidi Larson, director of vaccine confidence project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who stressed the need for men’s involvement during her opening comments at the event.

Seventy-five percent of the workforce in global health is women, but few are in leadership positions, Larson said.

“We have, thankfully, some men in the room and we also want to get that balance right because this is not just about women in leadership roles, but about equity. And it’s about getting that balance right and recognizing that we need a mix of talent to lead global health,” Larson said.

The lack of male presence at the event hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine wasn’t lost on other conference attendees or speakers, either. In her opening keynote lecture, Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general for programs at the World Health Organization, thanked “the sprinkling of men” in the audience, while Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, chief humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, applauded the few men in the room for attending.

Health organizations make some progress on gender

A report on gender equality shows a sort of "sea change" in the health sector. But more organizations still need to step up.

Gender parity works both ways

Gender imbalance at the leadership level “will only be fixed when men see it as their issue too,” said Médecins Sans Frontières’ International President Joanne Liu.

Liu spoke on an all-women panel, and noted that the lack of parity her panel demonstrated was also problematic. The fact that gender parity wasn’t evident in the audience of the women leadership-focused conference is reflective of the fact that the sector still has a long way to go: “If we don’t [involve more men], we’re going to do what we’ve been doing for decades and centuries of nongender parity but we’re doing it the other way around,” said Liu. “We know better.”

More men are already unwilling to appear on all-male panels, said Tobias Denskus, senior lecturer and MA program coordinator at Sweden’s Malmö University. But rather than skipping panels or conferences, men could instead take on a more passive role, Denskus suggested.

“Sitting in the literal back row and listening to female participants is an important role to show the physical presence but at the same time take yourself back and say ‘I’m actually here to listen,’” he said. “Men as listeners is still an important way of showing solidarity, support, and empathy to the issue.”

Research has also found that women are less likely to ask questions at a panel discussion if the first person to speak in the audience is a man, Denskus explained. Therefore, making a conscious effort to ensure a woman speaks first will encourage other women to speak up.

“It is also important, not just when it comes to outside meetings or fancy conferences, but also when you have meetings inside the organization that you are aware who is attending meetings, who is speaking up, who is asking the questions first,” Denskus said.

How men can support women leaders

There’s much more to be done aside from improved conference parity and etiquette, Denskus noted. Across organizations, men should also take on some of the “less glamorous work,” he said, pointing to how, in academia for example, women tend to do more of the “care” work — such as looking after students, office hours, and supervision — which may not be helpful for a promotion.

“Men [can] take over more roles more in the background, less glamorous, perhaps more time-consuming, so that female colleagues and other colleagues have an opportunity to really use their strengths, shine their light on things, be in the limelight, and do important things for the organization.”

Getting more women to global health leadership positions does not mean a crisis for men, Denskus highlighted, but a crisis for “mediocre men.”

Research on the impact of gender quotas on the Swedish Democratic Party found that new and increased competition of strong and qualified women leaders started driving out the mediocre men, he explained, or those who may have been going through the party ranks by being there and being a man and attending the right party meetings.

“That’s probably also true for global health, where you have a lot of traditional U.N. organizations [and] international donors, and I’m pretty sure that, very often, you will find men currently in leadership positions who are not … there because they were the most qualified candidate … maybe they were the most senior person [or] the oldest person.”

To instigate changes in leadership, the best candidates of all genders and backgrounds need to be brought forward and “those who are less qualified — and that’s a specific group of men — will probably lose out in a good way to younger, more qualified women,” he said.

About the author

  • Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters formerly covered career and hiring trends, tips, and insights. Lottie has 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.