Achieving health equity in global health through workforce diversity

This International Women’s Day we honor the achievements of women leaders working to advance the health and well-being of people all over the world. Their path to success was certainly not easy. It was fraught with numerous challenges; challenges that are not only experienced by those of us working in global health but by women across all industries.

We are considered either too soft and feminine or too bossy and pushy to be seen as competent leaders. Our work culture lacks family-oriented, work-life balance policies which enable us to contribute to our field in significant ways. We lack female mentors to encourage us to grow and push us to overcome any obstacles we encounter in our career. We work for organizations where the people who make the big decisions on what policies and programmatic areas to focus on are men. The struggles we face trying to advance in our careers are reflected in the lack of gender equality in the global health workforce. While women make up 70% of the global health workforce, only 25% of leadership positions in global health are held by women.

We have known for a long time that when women are given equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in economic, political, and public life, everyone in society does better. Female leaders in health “promote access to contraceptives, empowerment programs for girls, women’s rights to family planning and maternity care, safe abortions, and protecting environmental assaults on children’s health.” In addition, women leaders at all levels of governance have shown to be the primary driver toward financing public goods such as health, education, hospitals, clean water, and sanitation. Women’s participation and leadership in economic, political, and public life is so critical to advancing societies that it is even written into one of the sustainable development goals. When women have a voice at all levels of decision-making, we are closer to eliminating the inequities that lead to disparities in health.

More global health organizations are recognizing the need for women leaders and organizations such as Women in Global Health are working toward achieving gender equality in global health leadership. Last year the World Health Organization’s newest Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom, appointed eight women to senior leadership, effectively outnumbering the men. In doing so, he took one big leap toward achieving gender equity at the WHO – a goal that was first set in 1997 and that took two decades to realize.

Gender equality is not the only type of diversity we need to strive toward in our global health leadership however. Diversity in global health leadership must also focus on inclusion of people from different ages, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, geography, religion, and other characteristics of personal identity.  As a woman and a first-generation Filipino-American working in global health in the United States, I often find myself at global health and public health conferences and meetings wondering why there are very few leaders that encompass the diversity that I represent on stage (and occasionally even in the audience). The people who make the decisions with the biggest impact in global health must reflect the diversity of the people we serve.  

Learning from, understanding, and seeing the world through another person’s point of view is at the heart of working in global health and a driving reason for why I chose to work in this field. In order to truly reflect the diversity of this field though, the definition of diversity itself needs to go far and beyond the characteristics of one’s personal identity. To fully be inclusive, we must also be open to learning from, understanding, and seeing the world through the perspectives of individuals in the global health workforce with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and competencies. Our field could benefit from the ideas of diverse individuals in solving some of the world’s most pressing global health problems. These ideas cannot always come out of our own echo chambers. 

Achieving diversity in the global health workforce is everyone’s job. It requires each one of us to recognize and overcome the personal biases (whether they are subconscious or not) which prevent us from hiring and working with more diverse talent. For those of us responsible for making decisions, we must work to create policies at all levels which not only promote but require inclusion. It’s only then that we can achieve true diversity in our workforce and our leadership. It’s only then that we can progress further in achieving health equity.

Stay tuned for part two of my series on Achieving health equity in global health through workforce diversity in which I will discuss different ideas for how we can achieve diversity in the global health workforce.

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