International Recruitment in Global Health: A Conversation About Equity
As Global Health Corps (GHC) recently selected its 2019–2020 fellow cohort — a community effort — GHC alums Virginia Roncaglione and Tinotenda Muchena, from Italy and Zimbabwe respectively, reflect on their experiences with the international recruitment process in the global health field.
Editor’s Note: As a leadership development organization committed to diversifying global health leadership to accelerate the pursuit of health equity, we at GHC actively work to increase diversity and remove bias in all its forms from our recruitment and selection processes. We are committed to continuous learning and iteration as we acknowledge that we exist within inveterate structures of oppression. This is an ongoing, long-term effort and we are grateful for the thought partnership and commitment to this issue from our diverse global community of fellows and alumni.
What was your initial experience with international recruitment processes?
Virginia: While I did do my studies in the United Kingdom, which should have given me a big advantage, I was completely taken aback by my first GHC interview. I had gotten my first job through networking in my home country (Italy), and had never undergone an international hiring process. I was so unaware of the system that it did not even occur to me to do any research on what questions to expect or how to answer them. I assumed that I would be questioned solely on my technical skills, and thus I prepared accordingly. So, when asked about my values and soft competencies, I felt like I only managed half-baked, inarticulate answers.
It goes without saying that I did not make it to the next round but, thankfully, I got a big wake up call. I was lucky enough to have been selected for another GHC fellowship position interview, so I researched like crazy about how to succeed. I also rallied a good friend who had experience in the sector, as well as a senior colleague who had been working in global health for decades, to help me prepare for it. I succeeded, but it took a lot of studying how the process worked and training effectively to find my way around it.
Tinotenda: Having had no experience with international recruitment processes when I attempted to apply for graduate school in the U.K. and U.S., I began reading and researching topics like “writing winning applications.” Because of my lack of knowledge, these attempts were very much shots in the dark. However, one consistent theme emerged: To write a good application, you always need someone who is familiar with the area to review your work. As I was working on my application, I reached out to a cousin who had studied and worked in the U.S. to be my essay reviewer. After reading my initial submission she said, “It’s okay to talk highly of yourself! Stop shortchanging yourself and use action words to describe your capabilities.”
Looking back, this aligns with the STAR method, which encourages people to write what they have accomplished while using action words. I think “blowing your own horn” is something that is not taught in developing countries so many candidates fail to convince selectors that they’re qualified. Though I didn’t get into graduate school, this experience was very useful when I applied for a GHC fellowship a couple of months later.
Virginia: I also have trouble blowing my own horn! Back home, it is not appropriate, and I feel women are especially disadvantaged in this area. Tino, have you found ways to do it in a “natural” way?
Tinotenda: Considering for the longest time women hardly had a seat at the table to share their views, it’s easy to miss opportunities. I learned that the easiest way to showcase one’s capabilities is to practice positive thinking to empower yourself. Always start with action words to demonstrate daily achievements and work with yourself to do this in any other context. For instance, starting a sentence with the words, ‘I developed’ will clearly show the role that one played and the skills that one possesses.
Why is this a social justice issue for you?
Virginia: For the past five years, I have in some capacity been reviewing applications and interviewing candidates for the GHC fellowship. In my experience, applicants from developing countries who don’t have access to professional experience or education abroad (specifically in a developed country) are consistently at a disadvantage in the selection process. Just like me in my first GHC interview, they do not know their “way around the system.” International recruitment processes are conducted primarily according to standards stemming from the U.S. and U.K. working cultures. Candidates need to understand how these processes function in order to successfully navigate them. However, to acquire this kind of information, an applicant needs to be an insider to a system which is usually built in places of privilege, such as Ivy league universities or unpaid internships — neither of which are accessible to underprivileged groups.
Tinotenda: Having also been a GHC fellow selector for the last three years, I have noticed that, just like me with my graduate school applications. Fellow applicants from developing countries make mistakes, like failing to outline their skills and capabilities in written applications, and failing to express themselves in oral interviews as the questions are often behavioral. However, as the International Labour Organization’s decent work concept outlines, discrimination stifles opportunities for individuals, wastes human talent, and slows economic progress. This is especially true in the field of global health and development. The inability to successfully recruit a diverse workforce, especially from the very countries in which organizations operate, stifles opportunities for citizens of the Global South to be changemakers in their own countries. Additionally, organizations miss out on leveraging the knowledge and skills of individuals and groups who, by virtue of being the so-called beneficiaries of aid, are best equipped to understand and tackle the issues that international agencies seek to address.
What do you see as potential avenues for change?
Tinotenda: To break this glass ceiling, it will take a lot of career guidance, communication skills development, and exposure to public speaking. Unfortunately, these soft skills are not taught formally in most developing countries, and folks only start working on them when they are looking for employment opportunities and career development. These competencies should be introduced in academia at a young age or in university to ensure that graduates are prepared for recruitment processes. However, since generating the much-needed awareness to instigate changes within institutions takes time, in the meantime we need to have more information in the public eye on how one can tackle the international recruitment process successfully at an individual level. Thus, recruiters should share the blueprint of key application guidelines so as to allow for an open and fair recruitment process accessible to a diverse workforce.
Virginia: As structural violence is central to this issue, a continued push towards equality achieved through systems change is, for me, the only true long-lasting solution to this situation. As such complex transformations take time, I agree that recruitment processes should become more inclusive and culturally aware in the meantime. To achieve this, recruiters will need to first acknowledge that the current processes are not “international” but are built around a very specific cultural subset. With this in mind, recruiters should work to understand and counteract their implicit biases. On the other hand, making explicit the implicit requirements of application processes that are otherwise known only to insiders is a small but effective way of leveling the playing field.
Tinotenda: I agree that outlining exactly how applicants will be assessed when they apply to a particular job is probably the easiest, most impactful action that organizations can take to support applicants from developing countries. That’s why I am excited to announce that we have also published a checklist to give GHC applicants a blueprint of sorts on how to succeed in the fellowship recruitment process. The hope is that this tool will support the professional development and competitiveness of many underprivileged candidates, both in terms of the fellowship application and for their professional life in general.
What are your words of encouragement to applicants?
Tinotenda: Successful application writing and interviewing is a skill that requires practice and an open mind, and a willingness to accept critical feedback and learn from it. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and invite a colleague or friend to look at your writing or hear the responses to your practice interview questions. Be open-minded with the feedback, and remember: The application and interviewing process is the moment to sell your accomplishments, experiences, knowledge, skills, and impact to the recruiters.
Virginia: Applying and interviewing are just like preparing for a school exam or a sports competition: studying and training can work miracles.
Don’t let yourself get discouraged if your first attempts are unsuccessful. It is absolutely normal just like when you are in the process of learning a completely new discipline. Persist! Once you have mastered the skills, they will be with you for the rest of your career. Thus, it is well worth investing your time and effort into it.
Virginia Roncaglione was a 2013–2014 Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow in the U.S. Tinotenda Muchena was a 2015–2016 GHC fellow in the U.S.
Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.