Opinion: Women deliver global health — why are men still leading it?

A Bangladeshi nurse helps treat a patient suspected of suffering from diphtheria in the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

We know that, for the most part, women deliver global health and men lead it. Women make up roughly 70% of the global health workforce but hold only 25% of senior roles. This imbalance is linked to inequities that are bad for women in the sector, for global health organizations, and for the communities with which we work.

#GlobalDevWomen Opinions

This article is part of our op-ed series #GlobalDevWomen Opinions, where we hear from leaders in the sector on key themes around women’s leadership, #AidToo, and empowerment in practice, in the run-up to International Women’s Day.

Women in the global health and development fields face significant barriers. For example, they are more likely than men to do unpaid work or work for less pay, to be verbally harassed, or to suffer physical or emotional violence. Organizations and agencies miss out on women leaders, while the on-the-ground health workforce suffers if entire frontline professions only draw from half of the talent pool because they are identified as “female” jobs.

This is happening at a time when we are 18 million health workers short of the level required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and to ensure universal health coverage. To meet those ambitious targets, we need to engage more women and more men in health care delivery and address gender imbalances at every level of the global health sector.

As women leading organizations in global health and international development, we are acutely aware of the myriad barriers that women face and how those barriers affect the outcomes we strive for. These barriers can exist at every point in the arc of a woman’s career. In our spaces, we know women who struggle to enter the workforce, those limited from moving up within institutions, and female leaders who face the ”glass cliff” phenomenon.

At each stage of their career and in each type of organization, women face prejudices that go beyond gender — prejudices that intersect with class, race, ability, religion, economic status, and sexual orientation. These challenges are often compounded for transgender women or those whose genders are nonbinary.

Accelerate progress and learn from previous successes

We know some progress is being made as more organizations and leaders focus on gender and social inclusion. To continue and accelerate that progress, our sector must learn from the successes so far and find new ways to build on them.

There are many such successes, such as the brilliant networks that bring together women and others to critically examine global health and development through a gender and social-inclusion lens, including Black Women in Development, Women In International Security, Women in Foreign Policy, the Women in International Affairs Network, Women in Global Health, and the Women Innovators & Leaders Network. By recognizing commonalities in the challenges we all face and supporting each other through collective advocacy, we can build networks that pave the way for all women in our sector.

Organizations are also doing a better job of sharing data, progress, and lessons learned. One example is Global Health 50/50, which has assessed nearly 200 organizations in global health across a number of indicators and published the results. We can use their database to see what other organizations are doing in terms of their own diversity and equality initiatives and reach out to each other to learn more. Women in Global Health and Women Deliver have sponsored conferences and other forums for discussions and information-sharing.

However, we need more — especially more opportunities for women to engage directly with each other across agencies, generations, and professional levels.

Furthermore, we must combine local and global action to effect change. Working to address country-specific harassment laws or to recognize midwifery as a profession is crucial, and those efforts are most effective in the context of global leadership speaking out and setting norms for eliminating harassment and recognizing the work of women.

We should also examine workplace culture and governance as two sides of the same coin. Governance processes have long been the focus of efforts to make institutions more equal — from increasing inclusivity and transparency to improved accountability and communication. While these efforts are critical, alone they are not enough. The abuses revealed by #MeToo still prevail today, demonstrating the need to look beyond governance processes and consider workplace culture more broadly in our efforts to translate improved governance to wider social transformation.

How to better support women in development

We each work to ensure that our respective organizations actively participate in these collective approaches for improving gender equality in the sector. Within our organizations, we are committed to establishing cultures and practices that support women at every level of their careers.

One way to do this is through organizational policies and procedures. These include ensuring equitable benefits such as parental leave and not asking job candidates for past salary information, as this puts women and members of minority groups at a disadvantage. It is also essential to determine the offices or levels of the organization in which women are underrepresented and to design a plan to increase balance.

Additionally, mentoring individual women at every stage of their careers — either through a formalized program within organizations or informally through personal professional connections — is an important tool for ensuring women get the support they need to continue meeting and exceeding their professional goals.

Yes, global health and international development have a gender problem. We also have an incredible opportunity. There are changes we can make in our organizations and across our sector that, on their own merits, are the right thing to do and will help improve the outcomes we work toward. Each of us and our organizations are dedicated to this path.

We seek to partner with and learn from like-minded leaders and agencies, and we invite all organizations working in global health and development to join us on this journey to gender equality and social inclusion. Making a collective shift is necessary for meeting the ambitious goals set forth in the SDGs, and it’s the right thing to do. We hope you will join us in this effort.

Call for participants: Women in Dev

Women in Dev is a women-led and women-focused international development conference that will be held in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2020, uniting women to drive change in the development space. For more information, take a look here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Rachel Firth

    Rachel Firth is the founder of Women in Dev, an international development conference taking place in London on March 5, 2020. She is the managing director of Global Office Consulting, which works predominantly with women-led or gender-focused development organizations and initiatives. She has been involved in policy formation for global health initiatives in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals, supported in the development of national strategies for maternal and child health, and delivered advocacy and programmatic work in health, education, and gender equality globally.
  • Traci L. Baird

    Traci L. Baird, president and CEO EngenderHealth, is an experienced and respected leader in the women’s health and sexual and reproductive rights field. Prior to joining EngenderHealth in 2018, she held numerous leadership positions over more than 20 years. She served as CEO of SHIFT NC, a nonprofit organization working to improve adolescent and young adult sexual health, and she was the executive vice president of programs for Ipas, a global reproductive health organization. Traci has a Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina, and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University, with a concentration in Women’s Health.