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Stanford’s Michele Barry on why we need more women leaders in global health

As the women began to clap, Michele Barry, MD, director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, realized she’d touched on something big.

It was summer of 2016 and she was at a conference in Nairobi when a panel composed entirely of men took the stage. Barry rose from her seat in the audience and addressed the panel saying, “It behooves you— if you want to be the continent that is leading the next generation — to get some women up there.”

“For that, I literally got a standing ovation from the women in the audience,” Barry said recalling the event as we sat recently in her sun-drenched office in Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

This experience inspired Barry to create Stanford Medicine's first Women Leaders in Global Health conference, a two-day event (starting this fall) that aims to spotlight emerging and established women leaders in global health while giving future female leaders the tools and support they need to become trailblazers in their field.

Barry told me about her own path to leadership saying, "I didn’t start off thinking I would be a leader. I originally went into medicine for political reasons. It was after the Vietnam War and I was very interested in making a difference."

The pivotal moment arrived roughly 10 years into her career, when Barry received a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship and $50,000 to study anything outside of her field. Barry was one of the few doctors in a diverse group of 40 people, including a schoolteacher, a TV anchor, and four college presidents, that studied leadership skills for three years.

"It was really transformative for me." Barry said. Leadership skills are, she said, "an important skillset have to 'move the needle.' It was one thing to take care of patients, but it was another to inspire other people. And that's what I think a leader does, a leader listens and inspires others."

For women who advance to leadership roles, like Barry, the issue of gender doesn’t necessarily fade away. "It’s something I think about all the time, mostly as a mentor to women now,” she told me. "I do think it is harder for a woman to achieve leadership. There’s no question about it."

Although women comprise roughly 75 percent of the health work force and most students in academic and global health tracks, women hold just eight of the 34 World Health Organization executive board positions and fewer than 25 percent of the global health leadership positions at the top U.S. medical schools.

Addressing why gender equality hasn’t spread to the leadership levels is one of the topics Barry hopes to discuss in the upcoming WLGH conference.

"I think it has been a boys’ network," Barry said. "I don’t think it’s malignant bias, I don’t think it’s misogyny. I think it’s more about unconscious bias, that we’re more comfortable with people that look and talk like us."

Men and women both have an important role to play in changing this unconscious bias but ultimately, "it's up to women to step up to the plate," Barry said.

"I hope to inspire women to think leadership can be on top of their list and they can still do all the other things that are important," she explained. "I managed to raise two wonderful daughters while dragging them all over the world doing global health. I'm very proud of them. Do you have kids?"

"No," I said.

"You’ll see when you do," Barry said. "It becomes very important what you leave them, the legacy that you leave them."

Previously: Stanford expert: Don’t eliminate “one of the most effective tools we have to fight global diseases”Gender parity in global health events: A conversation and Stanford global health chief launches campaign to help contain Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
Image courtesy of Michele Barry

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