Women Leaders in Global Health: What Can I Do to Accelerate the Pace of Change?

By Gabrielle Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO Panorama

I left last week’s Women Leaders in Global Health conference energized by being surrounded by inspirational leaders sharing a lifetime of wisdom.  With 900 participants from 80 countries and at all stages of their careers, I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and making new ones, and learning from the collective knowledge.

The conference was kicked off by host Professor Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine sharing a sobering statistic: Women make up more than 75% of the global health workforce, but are in less than 20% of the leadership roles.

A report by Global Health 50/50 backs this up with data on leadership in global health organizations.  In a survey of 140 organizations they found that only:

  • 31% are headed by women;
  • 25% have equity in senior management;
  • 20% have a female board chair; and
  • 20% are governed by bodies that have gender parity.

Beyond that, The Lancet reported last year that only 31% of ministers of health are women, and that only one of 27 health companies on the Forbes 500 list was headed by a female CEO.

Despite these rather grim statistics, the two-day conference was filled with a very positive energy, and a sense that change can, and will happen, at a faster rate than it has in the past.

Great advice was shared on how women can advance in to leadership roles in global health. My three favorite quotes from the week were:

  • “To lead others, you need to lead yourself first” – Anita Zaidi, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • “The only way the turtle makes progress is to stick its neck out” – Ritgak Tilley-Gyado, The World Bank
  • “If they don’t offer you a seat at the table, pull up a folding chair.  And if they don’t let you do that, sit on the table” – Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Humanitarian Coordinator, Nigeria

I came away from the conference with a renewed impatience at accelerating the pace of change, and since then have been thinking about what I could do to contribute.

The first thing I am going to do is double-down on the things that I am already doing:

  • Sharing knowledge that I’ve learned throughout my career by speaking, writing, and meeting with future leaders;
  • Shining a spotlight on where we’ve seen great leadership in global health (e.g., WHO Director General’s 60% female cabinet), and also where we’re not (see #manel); and
  • Ensuring that I hire and mentor the best possible team, and encourage them to grow within, and outside, my organization;

And the second thing I am going to do is to host an exploratory meeting to see if there is interest in a Seattle chapter of Women in Global Health. The meeting will be on Thursday, January 10, 2019 – please send a note to [email protected]  if you are interested in attending.

I’m open to other suggestions on what we collectively can do to accelerate the pace of change.

What actions are you taking to promote women’s leadership in global health?