Opinion: A call to action on gender equality in global health

Delegates from Women in Global Health at the 70th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Women in Global Health

Without a doubt, women led the way in 2017. We raised our voices and joined together to advocate for human rights and dignity for every person. From the “Silence Breakers” to protestors in pink hats, women reclaimed our common humanity with bravery and courage.

This ripple was also felt in the global health community. There was a heightened visibility for gender equality. We united around a common belief that everyone has the right to attain equal levels of participation in leadership and decision-making regardless of gender. And more than that, we were united in the knowledge that gender equality widens the talent pool, adds diverse perspectives, and strengthens global health. This multi-stakeholder, intergenerational dialogue spanned across the globe and brought together leaders across all career-levels in conversations about furthering gender equality in global health leadership. And we are making considerable progress. We celebrate the women who paved the way. We are standing on the shoulders of female giants, pioneers in medicine and science, who fought for the right for women to enter the profession. And we celebrate the heroines of health, working on the frontline of global health, in challenging contexts. We promote and celebrate women’s leadership at all levels of global health.  

Achieving gender equality requires bold action from strong leaders, and we have seen such leadership in 2017 from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his first six months as director-general of the World Health Organization.

Yes, we are honoring a man. But without buy-in from men, we will never achieve gender equality. And, in our humble opinion, this is an extraordinary man. It takes grit and determination to translate a campaign pledge into real change. Change is hard, and we know some may criticize Tedros and his approach. He is challenging deep-rooted, century-old power structures. We celebrate the transformational change happening at the World Health Organization.  

Despite setting a target of achieving 50 percent gender equity in 1997, WHO has not lived up to that goal. Two decades later, only 28 percent of the directors were women. But this picture is quickly improving. Tedros appointed nine women in October to the senior management team. For the first time in WHO history, women outnumber men in the senior leadership team. In December, Tedros added seven women at the director level.

Additionally, the 13th General Programme of Work demonstrates that WHO understands the importance of the gender dimensions of health and well-being. Women in Global Health submitted more than 30 recommendations, and this GPW has integrated 24 of our 30 recommendations. Most of the points that have not been addressed are mainly operational in nature (5 points), therefore 96 percent of recommendations for planning have been integrated, giving the GPW13 an A+ score on gender equality.

Now that Tedros has walked the talk, we look to the global health community to support and follow through. This is a journey. And, as Tedros has said, a lot of work remains.

We call on WHO and its member states to continue to promote gender equality in WHO leadership positions in Geneva and throughout the regions and country offices. This requires the meaningful engagement of men and women in the technical programs of WHO, as well as active monitoring, data generation, and the adoption of evidence-based best practices that promote gender parity and equality in health governance across WHO and in member states.

We, as women in global health, commit to lead by example. We will propose reforms to the WHO secretariat that will institute specific measures to achieve gender parity in their top leadership; ensure equal representation of both women and men in our delegations to the World Health Assembly and WHO Executive Board meetings and regional governance meetings; and maintain gender parity in the organization of all panels and events that we convene during the WHA and other high-level international and regional global health events.  

Women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce, yet occupy only 25 percent of leadership positions in global health. Currently, women deliver health care to over 5 billion people and if we enable them, they will deliver the world’s most important health goal: universal health coverage. WGH will continue to work for gender equality and women’s leadership at all levels in the global health workforce because gender equality is smart global health.

It will take all of us working together to walk the talk and achieve gender equality once and for all. Are you with us? Make your own commitment here.

About the authors

  • Roopa%2520dhatt%2520

    Roopa Dhatt

    Dr. Roopa Dhatt is the executive director and co-founder of Women in Global Health. She is a practicing internal medicine physician, implementing partner and steering committee member of the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, and on the Advisory Council of Global Health 50-50. Dr. Dhatt is focused on advancing gender equality, youth engagement, women’s leadership and multisectorial work.
  • Ann%2520keeling

    Ann Keeling

    Ann Keeling is a policy fellow with Women in Global Health. She has over 30 years' experience in human and social development working for U.N., Commonwealth and governments of U.K., Papua New Guinea, and Pakistan. Ann was head of gender equality for the U.K. government, CEO of the International Diabetes Federation, and founded the NCD Alliance.
  • Nicole%2520schiegg

    Nicole Schiegg

    Nicole Schiegg is a strategic advisor to Women in Global Health. She is a partner in the C5 Collective and has an independent consulting practice. Nicole was an appointee in both President Bill Clinton’s and President Barack Obama’s administrations. Most recently she was a senior advisor at USAID and directed strategic communications.
  • Kelly thompson

    Kelly Thompson

    Dr. Kelly Thompson is a programming specialist at Women in Global Health and has worked as a collaborator and/or consultant with UNAIDS, ILO, WHO, and PMNCH on adolescent health, HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights, youth engagement, and youth-led accountability.