Actions speak louder than words: Putting women front and center in global health

#AllMalePanel at the 69th World Health Assembly, May 2016 (G. Fitzgerald)

At the recent Women Deliver conference, 5,000 people gathered 
in Copenhagen to talk about putting women and girls at the 
center of development. Women’s health issues and trends were front 
and center, and many people emphasized the importance of 
Sustainable Development Goal #5: Gender Equality.

Last week, many of these same leaders made their way to Geneva to attend the World Health Assembly. I was fortunate to attend this year’s assembly, the annual gathering of Ministers of Health, experts and advocates.

It is a policy wonk’s dream: In one room, health emergencies are being discussed. In the next, neglected diseases with names that are difficult to pronounce or spell. Go down the hall, and you can pop in on sessions on anti-microbial resistance, dementia or adolescent health.

There was cause to celebrate at this year’s assembly. Polio is close to eradication, with only 74 cases last year. Guinea worm is even closer, with only 22 cases.

And there was discouraging news. The Zika virus has spread to 39 countries, with 500 million people at risk, with the implications still being understood. And last year, there were nearly 600 attacks on health care workers and facilities.

Almost every session echoed the themes from Women Deliver — healthy women and girls are central to healthy communities.

But looking behind this rhetoric, a concerning trend still exists in the global health community: A complete gender imbalance in leadership positions.

WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, 69th World Health Assembly, May 2016 (WHO/L. Cipriani)

While the WHO is led by a female Director General, the heads of The Global Fund, GAVI, UNAIDS and UNICEF are men. Of these agencies, only UNICEF has ever had a woman leader.

The Center for Global Development commented on this trend three years ago, after the last Women Deliver conference. Since then, Deborah Birx was named head of PEPFAR, and the next Secretary General of the United Nations, to be selected this fall, may well be a woman.

So, perhaps things are going in the right direction. But the challenges of the lack of women leadership were brought home to me at a micro level last week when I attended a discussion on global health security.

I walked in to a packed room, found a seat and glanced up at the panel. The crowded stage had eight speakers, and every single one of them was a man. Even though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was.

I couldn’t believe that in 2016, we were still having conversations driven solely by men. As the event was being planned, did anyone stop and think that gender diversity might be valuable?

#AllMalePanel at the 69th World Health Assembly, May 2016

Over the past couple years, the #AllMalePanel hashtag has become popular on Twitter. I saw it used for at least five different panels during the World Health Assembly.

In March, Foreign Policy published a commentary on the dearth of women in speaking roles in important venues — whether Congressional hearings or panels like the one I attended. They offered “seven rules for avoiding all-male panels,” which are a good reminder that this trend can be avoided, with a little bit of effort.

Throughout my 20-year career in global health I have met incredibly smart, competent and passionate women and men. I would like to make an offer to my colleagues working on global health and development:

If you are putting together a panel and are finding it difficult to represent diverse views, feel free to reach out to me. I would be more than happy to refer you to qualified and knowledgeable experts who will provide interesting and diverse perspectives to complete your panel.

Hearing from a broad and diverse set of voices will only make our collective work stronger.

So, as we all work toward the sustainable development goal of gender equality, shouldn’t we all also work toward gender parity in important leadership roles and policy discussions?