Q&A: How the next generation can change global health 'faces and spaces'

Nurses from Mongolia attend an inpatient at the UNAMID Level 2 Hospital in Kabkabiya, North Darfur. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

BARCELONA — Today, more than 70 percent of the global health workforce are women, yet only 25 percent are in leadership positions and a further 50 percent of the female contribution to global health is unpaid. In the wake of the Women’s March, Time’s Up, and other efforts addressing equality in all sectors, could the global health landscape be seeing a shift in its workforce?

“I'm hoping in the next 10 years that we’ll really start to see not only gender parity, but even broader representation of women in leadership that's reflective of the workforce itself,” said Kelly Thompson, global gender advocate and former programming and gender director for Women in Global Health, an organization that brings together all genders and backgrounds to achieve gender equality in global health leadership.

“So if we have a nursing field that’s 70 percent women, it would be great to see that at least 70 percent of the leaders are women,” Thompson said.

“Global health is really an elitist space and it would be great to see more community-led leadership and people reversing that paradigm of power.”

Looking at programs such as master’s degrees in public health as a metric, the amount of women in global health is increasing — and will continue to do so, Thompson said. But there are areas within that, she said, where equality barriers still need to be broken down.

“Going forward it’s definitely going to continue to be a really female-dominated space,” she said. “But I also think there’s still some cases that are really male-dominated … global health security and financing for health.”

How can women beginning a career in this space, looking to enter one of the more male-dominated areas of health, or those climbing the ladder prepare for the global health sector of tomorrow?

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Speaking to Devex, Thompson explained how women can best equip themselves to be a part of the future workforce and offered her predictions on how the space might change in 2030, and the deadline for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said that women make up the vast majority of those working in the field of global health and will continue to do so. If that’s to be the case, how can women best prepare themselves to be a part of the next generation of global health practitioners?

There are a lot of women who have great technical skills and are well educated or over educated. If you look at soft skills, women already — without much training — have a lot of these soft skills that are essential in global health, but they don't always advertise them or realize that they have those strengths.

I’ve seen a lot of work on leadership and how transformative leadership styles seems to be gaining interest — a lot of the traits of transformational leadership are traditionally feminine. Those skills are really important when you're looking at global health or development moving forward, because they focus on finding common ground and working in a way that's super collaborative, brings everybody along, and highlights the strengths of the entire team rather than focusing on the leader as the main ego.

It’s thinking about “OK, if I'm a transformative leader or work in a transformative way, what does that mean for global health?” It means that you're really good at working with people across cultures or across professions and really good at finding a unifying thread. We really need to move beyond the “white male savior” idea and focus on the collaborative and community-led piece of development in global health. Women have those soft skills to make that happen and it’s really important.

“A lot of the traits of transformational leadership are traditionally feminine.”

There are a lot of big buzzwords like “innovation” and “data” and I see that women are often underrepresented in those fields starting from an early age. They’re deterred from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics more broadly, so I’d encourage women who have an interest in working in data, or even citizen-led data, to hone your skills and become sharp technically, as well looking at innovation and what it means for women to be innovators or social entrepreneurs in global health.

How do you hope things will differ for women in this space in 10 years time?

The big thing for me right now is people talking about how many women there are working in global health, but there actually isn’t a true recognition of how much women are actually delivering on global health. We’re often still seen as objects or people who need to be recipients of outreach like sexual and reproductive health, and rights, and maternal health, so we really need to make sure that we see women not only as recipients, but that they’re recognized for their driving role.

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Whatever leaders there are should also be thinking again in a transformative — but particularly a gender transformative — way and enabling a restructuring that will allow the space to work best for everyone, regardless of whether they're men, women, or nonbinary. Then seeing how we can make sure that it isn't only a transformative space for women as a homogenous group, but also thinking about how we can include women and health professionals in all their diversity — whether it's different nationalities, origins, races, or classes. Global health is really an elitist space and it would be great to see more community-led leadership and people reversing that paradigm of power.

A caveat that’s needed to achieve all of this: anything we do to make the space more transformative is always limited by the society, community, or family structure that women are living in.

We want to focus on making sure that not only are we changing the face of global health and development itself, but also changing the communities in which women who are working in global health are living. For example, even if there are equal parental leave rights, a woman’s partner will still most likely go back home and do two to three times the unpaid care work that her partner would be doing, so we need to try to change the “face,” but also the “space.”

“Global health is really an elitist space and it would be great to see more community-led leadership.”

How key is mentoring and networking for women in the global health space?

There's definitely proof that women-to-women networking has positive effects, but it’s only so effective. There's actually more evidence for why younger women should be mentored by men, particularly because men — often in the current state — are in higher positions of power, more likely to make hiring decisions, and more likely to have a more powerful network.

It's building on the power that men have already established for themselves and now bringing up the women. That comes with the caveat of making sure that it's not the savior or prince charming coming in and saving her from her wicked life, but rather that it’s a partnership and that both parties are advancing professionally and personally.

A lot of the women we've talked to have two types of mentorships or support networks: they have an intergenerational one for career advancement, growth, and development, but they also have peer-to-peer mentors and networks. There are a lot of women who are in leadership positions who have shared that they have weekly, monthly, or quarterly coffee dates or dinners with groups of other women who are working in the same field as them and that's really provided a lot of solid support and strengthening because there can be a lot of barriers. But, if you have that group support, it can really help.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.