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Women advocate for leadership roles in global health during 2020 Women Leaders in Global Health (WLGH) Conference

November / December 2020 | Volume 19, Number 6

Two female scientists researching in laboratory.
Photo by PointImages/iStock/Thinkstock

Women scientists gathered recently for a virtual conference
to discuss ways to nurture female leaders and achieve gender
equity in global health research.

By Susan Scutti

Three days in the company of scientific trailblazers at the annual Women Leaders in Global Health Conference demonstrated, once again, that the personal is political. Her early 30s marked the moment when Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said she entered “the culture of the male-dominated committee room” where older, male scientists patronized her and belittled her ideas. She faced this challenge with support from a male mentor who advised her to speak up: “They will grow to respect you and listen to you.” Now that Swaminathan’s voice is heard around the world, she remains committed to exposing lingering biases of previous generations. “It’s still more difficult for women to get their grants approved than men, everything else being equal,” said the former Fogarty trainee, citing a recent study. “Women also have more difficulty getting their research published.”

Hosted by WomenLift Health, the virtual symposium showcased women scientists in leadership roles in Asia and Africa. While many sessions highlighted the value of women in global health efforts, panelists also shared evidence of the gaps and barriers to gender equity in scientific institutions, including unequal pay and underrepresentation. Personal experiences, expert suggestions and hopeful ruminations entertained rapt attendees across the globe during the three-day online stream.

Logo: Women Lift Health - Women Leaders in Global Health 

From October 13-15, 2020 WomenLift Health
convened the fourth annual Women Leaders in
Global Health (WLGH) Conference
.

More than listening is required to achieve pay equity and gender parity, said Dr. Michele Barry, director of Stanford Global Health and founder of WomenLift Health. “The best way to advocate for change is through collective voice,” according to the longtime Fogarty grantee. Barry recalled her younger self joining women scientists at Yale who brought “our petition and bill of rights to the institutional leadership and they actually listened and began to correct salaries and track demographics.” Becoming a leader is another way to effect institutional change, said Barry, who cited Dr. Glenda Gray, head of the South African Medical Research Council as an example. Aware that men predominated in the extramural research units, Gray gated men from applying until gender parity was achieved, said Barry.

No matter how it’s accomplished, real change often requires passing new laws, which is a slow process and “often a long fight,” said Professor Agnes Binagwaho of Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity. “We need to do an annual gender equity audit, where men are part of the exercise.” Such inventories provide hard evidence showing where parity has not yet been reached and where attention needs to be paid, said Rwanda’s former health minister. Beyond suggesting practical measures, Binagwaho cautioned that the unseen forces of the status quo can be insidious. Both men and women have been educated with bias so many don’t recognize when they are contributing to inequities. “The solution is not individual, it is coming together and seeing what is wrong and making changes. Our role is to teach young women how to advocate for themselves.”

Although all scientists face adversaries who seek to “pull you down, dismiss you in some way, shape or form,” Wellcome Trust scientist Dr. Gagandeep Kang said she believes it happens more to women than men. Early in her career, the former Fogarty grantee recalled doing her best to dodge slights. Avoidance, though, “exerts an emotional tax on you,” so over time, Kang decided to assert herself. “You have to speak up, otherwise you’re complicit in continuing the problem.” Acknowledging that “sometimes it’s not gone so well, where I’ve become persona non grata,” Kang believes her true value remains visible: “Ultimately, you’re standing on your science.”

Decision-making is still very much the preserve of men, acknowledged African Academy of Sciences Director Dr. Tom Kariuki. Of the academy’s 500 fellows, only 100 are women. In a recent survey of women scientists across Africa, the majority reported difficulty advancing in their careers, he said. Conscious and unconscious biases, including the assumption that women will stop work once pregnant, play a role in disparities, said Kariuki. Yet, he is hopeful. “We have a burgeoning pipeline of young scientific women who are looking to join this new ecosystem that we are trying to develop on the continent.” To effect change, he believes African institutions must become “very intentional about where we want to arrive.” For example, he said they must set a goal of “50-50 parity in recruitment” while establishing policies that address bullying and harassment.

When enough women leaders occupy decision-making roles, the very structure of jobs will change, Kang observed. She, herself, has watched countless women subordinates “get married, have babies, take time off, but when their children are in school and they come back, they are way more productive than many men,” she said. “If you take it over a timescale of an entire career, there is no question that a woman will deliver.”

Supporting women begins at home, said Dr. Quaraisha Abdool Karim of Columbia University. “Both my husband and I are scientists. It is because we have shared parental responsibilities that we have flourished.” She acknowledged the debt she owed her parents and teachers, adding that “early foundational work makes all the difference” for women scientists. Still she believes there will always be “more people dissuading you from your dreams than actually supporting you, so you have to look really hard to find those few people who are going to support you no matter what.” Support, including mentoring, is necessary if women scientists are going to use their talents successfully, the conference panelists agreed. A good mentor “helps you navigate the waters” and brainstorms about overcoming personal as well as professional barriers to success, said Barry. “When you’re a mentor you try to help your mentee find clarity.”

COVID-19 has made achieving gender equality even more difficult with women bearing the brunt of the social and economic fallout, noted Amie Batson, executive director of WomenLift Health. As the world rebuilds, she said the global health community needs to rethink how to more effectively deliver health care, which will depend on equitable representation of women in leadership. Leaders draw on their experiences, noted Batson. “When you don’t have diversity, you’re not drawing on the diversity of lived experiences that women bring.”

Abdool Karim suggested women scientists take heed of lessons learned from “the other pandemic, HIV.” She recounted how in the early years HIV researchers focused on “what do men need, particularly men who have sex with men. And yet there was a heterosexual, generalized epidemic just flourishing in Africa.” Abdool Karim, who conducted one of the first studies on HIV/AIDS prevalence among women, noted that “the vast work” around HIV sex differences took nearly 25 years before it became widely accepted. “If I had not looked at the data as I had, if many other women had not joined me in that struggle, we would still be sitting with this data gap” and a lack of female-controlled preventive therapies, said the longtime Fogarty grantee. “If women scientists don’t take the lead in finding solutions, we will be sitting here with the same problems today.”

WomenLift Health, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, grew from an annual conference begun in 2017.

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