Women's Rights and Leadership in Global Health; Why It Matters

“Women and men are equal in terms of ability and dignity, and they should also be equal in terms of opportunities. As Rwandans, and as a global community we need every member of our society to use his or her talents to the fullest if we are ever to reach our development goals.” - Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda.

The right to health is a fundamental human right, rippling across social, economic, and political life. All across the world, tremendous strides have been achieved in the global health sector. However, challenges remain – the gender gap in health leadership is wide and glaring.

The World Health Organization’s study, Delivered by Women, Led by Men, found that though more than 70% of the global heath workforce delivering health care to 5 billion people is comprised of women, less than 25% are in positions of leadership, with the majority segregated to junior status and lower paid positions.

The health sector is weakened by a loss of female talent, ideas and knowledge. This impends the expansion of the global health agenda, presenting barriers to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately, universal health coverage.

The Lancet stressed that this inequity in women’s participation is a detriment to improved health outcomes worldwide for sexual and reproductive health and maternal and child health. This isn’t just a global health challenge, but a violation of human rights, as women are not adequately participating in decision-making processes that directly affect their lives. Access to health is a non-negotiable and primary human right that allows all individuals to actively participate in socio-economic development at a personal, community, national, and international level.

Gender differences in income have long-term implications for the social and economic welfare of women, potentially leading to an increase in poverty for women in old age. Wealth accumulation increases opportunities and personal purchasing power. Since financial stability is a key factor for women seeking healthcare and treatment, an increase in women’s global leadership would mean a decrease in preventable deaths.

The African continent is leading in terms of Health Ministries led by women with 38% compared to the global rate at 31%. This is a step in the right direction. Other commendable initiatives include the overtime increase of women representatives as chief delegates at the World Healthy Assembly, accounting to 16% in 2005, 22% in 2015 and 31% in 2017. This is progress, yet more needs to be done.

In 2017, Global Health, Epidemiology and Genomics published an article entitled The time is now – a call to action for gender equality in global health leadership, suggesting that it’s high time the global health community committed to leadership that is gender transformative and institutionalized. Leaders need to create an environment which recognizes and increases the visibility of women's contributions and leadership through hosting gender balanced events and prioritizing the recruitment of women in strategic decision-making roles.

None of this is possible without mentorship and networking, an activity that should be cultivated and supported early-on in organizations, with increased investment in junior staff and woman at the mid-career level who are at greatest risk of exiting the talent pipeline. Additionally, research and data should be disaggregated and reflexive in terms of sex and gender, illuminating the experiences of women in evidence-based terms.

Addressing gender gaps in leadership sets the agenda for equal representation at all levels. It leads to a more empowered workforce with improved motivation, improved quality of care, reduced attrition, and a better understanding of the systems in which we work. Gender equity is health equity, and there can be no health for all, until all perspectives are represented at the table.

Samia Kemal