Opinion: Health orgs should all be prioritizing women in leadership

Opinion: Health orgs should all be prioritizing women in leadership

I am a woman working in health care, and I am a leader. I wish that wasn’t a rare statement, but the reality is that women are estimated to hold only 25% of senior roles in global health, despite making up 70% of its workforce. In short, women don’t have the same opportunities as men to call the shots. The gender leadership gap is the elephant in the room of global health, with too many organizations unwilling to boldly address it and prioritize finding a solution.

Closing this gap requires deliberate action by organizations across the sector to dismantle the systemic gender inequality in health care. This isn’t a challenge that can be solved off to the side, delegated to a consultant on a short-term contract. It requires complete organizational buy-in, prioritizing gender equity in an organization’s strategy, ambitious metrics, and a proactive approach.

I have witnessed and experienced the visible and invisible barriers facing women. I’ve seen during my own career how women are overlooked for the top jobs, and it’s largely driven by stereotypes, discrimination, and gender power imbalance.

When I joined Zimbabwe’s senior leadership team at MSI Reproductive Choices nearly a decade ago, I was not only the youngest member but also the only woman. I felt like I had to put in extra effort to prove to my male peers that I had the knowledge and skills to do my job well. The fact is that some weren’t used to working alongside a woman leader — even on a topic such as women’s reproductive health care.

Despite these early challenges, I’m now leading MSI Zimbabwe and contributing to our global impact. I attribute my progress in part to MSI supporting my career journey in three important ways that our sector can learn from.

Written in the strategy
Nothing will change unless organizational strategies do. They guide us and tell us where to put our money, effort, and time. If gender-equal leadership isn’t central to that, it will always be considered a “nice-to-do” and progress will be stalled for generations.

That’s why MSI’s global strategy has gender inclusion written on the page: “We commit ourselves to diversity and gender equity, and we will place a particular emphasis on female leadership development.” We’re actively working toward achieving 50% female representation in senior leadership across our country programs by 2025. Two years into our strategy, this now stands at 46%.

That became a standout reason for me to stay put and grow. Against the backdrop of the “great resignation” — a broad economic trend beginning in 2021 where workers have been resigning in greater numbers than usual — as well as health sector burnout, a genuine commitment to supporting women into leadership, backed by action, can help retain female talent.

All organizations need to write gender-equal leadership into their strategy, develop metrics around it, and continue to hold themselves accountable to it.

Formal support
We won’t beat systemic gender inequality unless we provide women with formal opportunities to access information, develop their skills, and network. Organizations need to support women’s development and promote them.

I took part in an advanced leadership program that gave me the chance to meet inspiring people, gain varying perspectives on leadership and carve out an intentional direction for my career. It gave me clarity of purpose and a better understanding of my strengths and areas for growth. It was pivotal in instilling confidence and helping me along my journey into leadership.

MSI has also launched a targeted course on women in leadership, which aims to encourage and promote women globally. The first one was held in my home country in Zimbabwe in 2020 and is being rolled out in all the countries where we work. This is an example of deliberate action to cultivate women leaders.

Building relationships down the ladder
Organizations should be creating a culture where leaders are encouraged to understand the barriers faced by their female team members and actively lift women up. If you are a leader in health care, be a mentor or champion for a woman who is building her career. These relationships matter.

My boss once told me, “You are one of the best people I have seen in this job.” Getting positive feedback gave me a renewed energy to keep aiming higher.

He knew I was aiming for a top job and stretched my skills, asking me to lead meetings with the board and decision-makers, so I could gain the experience and confidence I needed to get to where I am today.

Now I make sure I extend support down the career ladder, giving one-to-one support to other ambitious women. From being the only woman in the room less than a decade ago, I’m now surrounded by capable women who make up the majority of my senior leadership team.

My story is sadly not the norm for women in the health sector. The onus has historically been on women to “act more like a man” or “go network” without the organizational support and strategy backing her up. The three ideas I’ve outlined are simple. They’re an accessible starting point for organizations striving to address the gender leadership gap in global health.

The positive results of closing the gap will serve everyone: your organization, our sector, and the world. A wealth of data shows that health systems function better when women have an equal say in decision-making and design.

I implore all health organizations to proactively support women into leadership roles. The solutions and tools are at our disposal, and we have smart women ready to lead. What we need now is real organizational buy-in and action.

Article link – https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-health-orgs-should-all-be-prioritizing-women-in-leadership-103633