Women’s sparse presence at top health sector jobs stunting progress

Saturday April 13 2024

Team of immunology research scientists working on cell at Kenya Medical Research Institute headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya on December 21, 2021. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NMG


Inadequate representation of women in decision-making roles is impeding the health sector’s advancement towards enhanced inclusivity, equity, and health outcomes.

Despite women’s prevalence in frontline positions, their voices and viewpoints frequently remain marginalised at upper echelons of management, say professionals in the field, adding this may have a negative impact on healthcare.

According to WomenLift Health president Amie Batson, “In healthcare systems globally, women form the backbone of the workforce, accounting for a substantial 70 percent of employees, (with 90 percent of them being frontline health workers).

However, despite their significant contributions, a stark gender disparity persists in senior leadership roles within the sector, where women hold a mere 25 percent or less of such positions.”

A UN report indicates that at the current rate of progress, it will take 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and at least 40 to achieve equal representation in national parliaments.

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In 2019, only 25 percent and 20 percent of global health organisations had gender parity in their senior management and governance boards, respectively. In 2020, only 44 women were serving as Ministers of Health worldwide, and Women Ministers of Children, Youth, and Families were much less.

The WomenLift Health Global Conference 2024, held in Dar es Salaam, April 6-8, brought together over 1,000 delegates and speakers from 41 countries under the theme: Reimagining leadership in health. It aimed to encourage the establishment of supportive networks that empower women to pursue leadership and excel in their careers.

The leadership disparity is particularly glaring given women’s indispensable role in providing essential care and services, as exemplified during the Covid-19 pandemic. As frontline workers, women have demonstrated unwavering dedication and resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges, yet their ascent to leadership positions remains obstructed by systemic barriers.

Various factors contributing to this imbalance, include ingrained biases, discriminatory practices, entrenched patriarchal systems, and limited access to mentorship and professional development opportunities for women in healthcare. Also, cultural norms and societal expectations often discourage women from aspiring to leadership roles.

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Ms Batson, stressed that there was compelling evidence that women leaders are more likely to prioritise the health needs of children, women, and communities, from reproductive and maternity care to primary healthcare services such as access to clean water and sanitation, all contributing to the development of stronger health systems.

Delivering his opening address, Tanzania’s Vice President, Dr Philip Isdor Mpango, highlighted the progress made in gender equality while acknowledging the challenges in leadership in global health and other sectors, stating that women held the key to addressing present and future challenges and could make a significant difference if allowed to lead.

The speakers agreed addressing this gender disparity in healthcare leadership requires concerted efforts from stakeholders across the industry in prioritizing diversity and inclusion initiatives, implementation of policies supporting women’s career advancement, and active promotion of gender equality within their ranks.

“Where women are out of sight, they are out of mind,” said Rt Hon Hellen Clark, Former Prime Minister, New Zealand.

“We have a deep and wide global talent pool in the health field. But, by not advancing leadership opportunities equally, we are severely limiting our ability to tackle the world’s most critical health challenges,” observed Baston.