Around the world, women carry a disproportionate burden of disease and death as a result of inequities in access to basic health care, nutrition, and education. Despite this, leadership in global health is largely dominated by men – only 8 of 34 World Health Organization executive board positions are women and fewer than 1 in 4 global health leadership positions at the top 50 U.S. medical schools are filled by women.
This week, Stanford School of Medicine’s will host the first Women Leaders in Global Health summit. This convening will celebrate women who are leading important progress in global health, and bring together a variety of stakeholders from governments, NGOs, and academia to focus on advancing women in the global health field.
Seed Global Health CEO, Dr. Vanessa Kerry, and our Malawi Country Director, Dr. Bridget Malewezi, will collaborate with hundreds of other women to find ways to strengthen and promote women’s leadership in global health.
Leading up to the event we spoke with these two leaders about their work in global health.
Why is it important to have women leading on the front lines of global health?
Dr. Bridget Malawezi (BM): Many of the major health issues of concern around the world either directly or indirectly affect women. Issues such as maternal mortality, reproductive health issues, child mortality (because it’s often mothers who take care of their children) or even challenges like hygiene and sanitation, often is the domain of women. Because of that, it’s important to have us as women be leading in the various aspects of developing policies, interventions, and decisions about how we address these health issues. Our competence, our compassion, and our caring approach make us important advocates and partners in health care and ultimately improving people’s lives.
Dr. Vanessa Kerry (VK): I believe women bring an important compassion and sense of community to their work, in addition to intelligence, dedication, and problem solving. We know that when women are leading or helping to lead, there are greater investments in health and education, and those investments return back into the community and household.
Why are events like this important?
VK: Events like the “Women in Global Health” conference are important because they help raise the profile of women leaders, our contributions to health, and our role in solving some of the biggest challenges of the world. It’s a true joy to be together with so many other smart minds and inspiring women as we all look to innovate and revolutionize how we do our work.
BM: It’s a great chance to network, share ideas, and learn from each other about the work that we are doing in our various organizations and countries. While it’s possible to read about some of these things in journals, reports, and publications, to have the opportunity to sit and speak directly to women involved in making important change in health is so much more impactful. And it’s a chance to strengthen and motivate each other as women, as well as to develop and grow ourselves as leaders in global health
How do we engage more women as partners and leaders in global health?
VK: As in any field, we need to elevate examples of women leaders and game changers to help show the diversity of paths we each take to get here, and the strengths each of us bring to leadership and to the field of global health. It helps other women see that there are many ways to step up as a leader in health, whether you’re a practitioner, a patient, or even just a health enthusiast and advocate. I also believe that we need to think flexibly about the processes by which we get work done and how to support balancing family, careers, and other demands; this shift is important for men, women, and families alike.
BM: We need to emphasize the role that women can and do play in the global health agenda. Events like this are great because they get to showcase the various ways we as women are involved as leaders. Additionally, as women, we can promote and highlight to others how important our roles are in impacting health, in whatever role we are in.
Personally, as a medical doctor I often get asked why I work with a non-profit and why I don’t work in the hospital. I used to shy away from explaining why I chose global health leadership, as there’s still a critical shortage of doctors in my country of Malawi. But for me, and my leadership ambition, I wanted to not only treat patients but also help influence the policies and interventions that can have wider impact on more of my own people. I can look back on my years of working in global health and see how my involvement helped with a new vaccine introduction, or promote increased uptake of long term family planning methods. Currently, in my role with Seed Global Health, I’m helping to improve the training of the next generation of doctors and nurses in my country..
What advice do you have to young women interested in global health?
VK: I encourage anyone interested in global health to pursue their specific interests – medicine, surgery, nursing, architecture, business – and to know it will be applicable to global health. Health needs around the world are diverse and immense, and almost any field can add incredible value and innovation to solving a global health problem.
BM: It’s a great field that can utilize just about anyone from any training background. That’s what I find so great about it because you are not restricted to doing just one thing. Global health is such a wide and diverse field and there’s opportunity for us as women to use our unique talents in an impactful way. If you are an artist you could do health messaging, if you love technology you can do e-health interventions, if your strength is finance you can do health financing. So your work is not only a channel for your creativity but also a way to change other people’s lives for the better.