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Stanford University School of Medicine

Women leadership in global health benefits everyone, conference goers are reminded

Just six weeks ago, Jim Yong Kim, MD, president of the World Bank, tweeted out a photo of top leaders of the World Health Organization - a group of men in business suits seated around a large table. Michele Barry, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, displays the photo on a large screen.

"Where are the women?" she says indignantly to a crowd of nearly 400 people - mostly women -- at Stanford's Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge last Thursday.

"We are here," responds a resounding chorus of female voices in the crowd.

So began the first Women Leaders in Global Health conference at Stanford, designed to highlight the accomplishments of women in the field and empower the next generation of leaders to fill the gap of women at the top.

Barry noted that some 90 percent of health care around the globe occurs at home, mostly by women caregivers. "On the frontline, at least 75 percent of the health workforce are women, and looking around this room, there is no shortage of women in the pipeline."

Yet there are few women at the highest echelons. Most health administrators, health-sector CEO's, deans, ministers of health and members of the World Health Assembly are men. And they are making critical decisions that impact the health of women around the world.

"When we have diversity, careers prosper, companies flourish and health outcomes improve," Barry said. "We all win."

As Stanford Provost Persis Drell, PhD, told the group, "Quite simply, we won't get the right answers without women in leadership roles."

The conference aims to begin a movement for change. It featured some 400 distinguished women leaders from 68 countries, representing 250 universities, companies and nonprofits - a veritable United Nations.

Harriet Mayanja-Kizza, MD, dean of medicine at Uganda's Makerere University, noted that in her sub-Saharan country, nearly all the bedside care is provided by women, whether it's nurses in hospitals or family members at home.

"I have had people tell me it's better for the wife to outlive the husband because the wife can look after him," she told the audience. "If the wife is sick, she has to find a sister or an aunt to take care of her."

Yet women are not encouraged to join the medical profession or the sciences. When she went to medical school, only 8 percent of the enrollment was female; now it's 30 percent, so things are gradually improving. But, she said, "Women have many things pulling against them," including the fact that many girls drop out of school by the age of 12 and are urged into early marriage and childbirth. Those who do make it into higher education have to balance family demands; one Master's student told her she was due to give birth the day her classes began. She had employed a caregiver to sit by a tree outside and look after her baby, so she could occasionally leave class to feed the child.

Earlier this year, Sania Nishtar, MD, a Pakistani cardiologist and activist, was short-listed as a nominee for the Director-General of the World Health Organization. She was the only woman on the list. During the campaign for the position, she said she visited dozens of countries.

"Women's leadership is not on the agenda of most governments," Nishtar said. "There were very few that talked about appropriate gender representation. That is a mindset that clearly needs to change."

Men have a role to play as well through programs that mentor women and promote them as role models, Peter Piot, MD, director of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told conference attendees.

"There's the reality that in order to achieve gender parity, men have to give up something," Piot said. "But it will be better for them ultimately."

Gary Darmstadt, MD, professor of pediatrics and associate dean for maternal and child health at Stanford, agreed. "Where you have greater gender equity, men's longevity improves, as does women's longevity," he said. "So I think we have a lot to gain."

The conference, co-sponsored by 18 different organizations, is just the beginning of the conversation on the issue. The London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine already has agreed to host the gathering next year, Piot said.

Previously: First Women Leaders in Global Health conference comes to Stanford and Gender parity in global health events: A conversation
Photo of Michele Barry by Rod Searcey

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