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Women leaders in Global Health: a couple of reflections on the inaugural conference in Stanford 3 months on

By Siphiwe Thwala
on January 19, 2018

It’s been a few months now, but it doesn’t really feel like that for me. In October 2017, I attended the inaugural conference of Women Leaders in Global Health, a movement launched in Stanford, California. It seeks to provide a global platform for women in the health professions to thrash out their career growth obstacles, and ways to overcome them across all leadership levels (emerging, mid-career, and senior levels). The conference manifesto is discussed in detail in the Lancet.

I found it to be an interesting and somewhat novel take on improving the status quo by women looking (first) inward, and actively encouraging women-to-women mentorship. It was also refreshing to see active participation of (well, some) men in the conversation, as we were joined by a few senior male leaders who showed a strong commitment to advance both women and men in global leadership. This provided an honest, yet objective space for discussing the plight of professional women in health; both sexes could be honest about the status quo and propose solutions, rather than getting stuck on blaming all the problems to the opposite sex and no way forward proposed. In short, there was neither male nor female bashing…. Not a bad thing in our times.

The year 2017 saw increased recognition of the capacity of women in global health, and highlighted their achievements through multiple high level appointments in WHO, by Dr Tedros . Although widely celebrated, it was shameful to note that this is (still) a special occurrence rather than the norm, when women have always made up an overwhelming majority of the global health workforce. However, these appointments highlighted the – slow but steady – tearing down of an old invisible wall that seemed to restrict and suppress women from achieving their full potential AND be recognised for their work simply because they are female. Far more work still needs to be done in this area of course as many restrictions and glass ceilings remain.

The Women in Global Health movement (WGH) was an implementing partner in this conference and had already outlined the problem of the plight of professional women in global health beautifully,  advocating for “gender parity as a goal of 50–50 representation in top global health leadership positions by 2030”. WGH provided useful insights on the extent of the problem, and thoughts on how to address some of the structural barriers to promote more equitable diversity in senior global health leadership.

Keynote addresses from speakers addressed health issues stemming from social ills, and the role of women as both health care practitioners and citizens in redressing them. From South African activist Dr Ramphele’s address on making choices to effect community change, and the reasons for those choices as a woman in the political world, over Dr Gray’s experience as a woman global leader implementing transformative polices in the public health space in South Africa in the post-apartheid era, to Dr Barry (Centre for Global Health Innovation director in Stanford) ’s insightful observations and passion to take on prevailing gender inequities in the senior leadership of global health. A former Rwandan minister (Agnes Binagwaho) gave her perspective on the fight to not only have a seat at the table as a politician and woman global leader, but to be heard as well. Academic leaders in global health from Harvard and Stanford also shared lessons learnt from their experiences and from their research and academic work. The common thread from all speakers was the daunting task to prove one’s capability, where one’s performance was always held in scepticism that male colleagues seemed to be (mysteriously) spared from.

The ‘lightening rounds’ sessions showcased different conference delegates from all backgrounds and across the different leadership levels, and inspired insightful reflections on our professional contributions, achievements, battles, and ways employed to conquer them. It was a moment to stop and reflect on one’s journey so far: we realized how far we’d come, what great strides we’d made, and the difference we had also made to our communities despite all odds.

It was truly an inspirational conference, with new networks forged, and thoughts around potential ways of collaboration, and peer to peer mentoring within our regions.  Emerging and mid-career women at the conference were inspired by it all, and came to identify some of the experiences similar to their own current experiences. Senior conference participants reported feeling comforted from the shared experiences of colleagues, by the knowledge that their battles were not unique to them, but that other sisters were facing similar challenges around the globe… and conquering them. It was like one big support group. This conference was a great start to something interesting and of great promise. Three months on, the Stanford experience remains unforgettable. I bet the movement will also be unstoppable in the years to come.

Post the conference, I got in touch with a few women leaders in health from my region that I could reach out to for mentoring. Some of these were leaders I would not have otherwise gained access to, in the absence of the Women Leaders in Global Health platform. I also identified others that could help or be relevant to me and the causes I’m fighting for, and it’s proven to be really useful. There is always something powerful and attractive about someone who is like you, who has achieved the things you’ve always aspired to and more. I look forward to the next instalment of this conference in London  (8-9 Nov 2018), where we hope to solidify some of plans and collaborations begun.


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