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New Series: Women on the Rise in Global Health

Roopa Dhatt and Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson (left) and Roopa Dhatt (right) of Women in Global Health. Photo courtesy of Roopa Dhatt.

This International Women's Day, we're launching a new series that explores why there aren’t more women at the top in global health—yet.

Every day I get to work side-by-side with smart, creative, tenacious people. IntraHealth International is full them. And, like at a lot of global health organizations, most of them are women.

Women make up 75% of the health workforce in many countries, but hold only 25% of leadership roles. And while up to 84% of global health students are women, they hold only 24% of global health faculty positions and a quarter of directorships in global health centers.

So we’re beginning a new series on IntraHealth’s VITAL about women leaders in global health. We’ll be featuring women leaders from throughout the health care and global health fields this year to get their insights on what it will take to change the statistics.

And where better to start than with Roopa Dhatt and Kelly Thompson, two of the leaders of Women in Global Health? Jenny Yi-Chen Lee (of the Swiss Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction) and I talked with Dhatt and Thompson about what’s ahead for women in our field.

Margarite Nathe: What was it like to start this organization, and what led you to do it in the first place?

Roopa Dhatt: My leadership journey is one of the key reasons I cofounded Women in Global Health. As a fourth-year medical student, I was in a setting encased in tradition and deep-rooted power structures that failed to see women as leaders—and there is no surprise in that story.

I was often called the “cheerleader”, instead of being viewed as the president.

At the same time, I had a life-changing opportunity to serve as an elected president of the largest and one of the oldest international health student organizations—the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations. And it was during my year as the president that I first felt the weight of gender bias and what it meant to walk the fine line as a woman leader.

Dress the part—that’s one lesson I realized I could never get right. People are very preoccupied with how women look, and this transcends generations. Some members felt it was more important to run a poll on my outfit and compare it with the only other senior woman on the executive team than listen to the content of my messages during key meetings.

And there were other things, too—I was often called the “cheerleader” for the organization, for example, instead of being viewed as the president. And if I was assertive, I was called many unpleasant things.

In the moment, I didn’t really piece together what was happening, because I was so focused on getting the job done, and on doing a great job. It was already a challenge just to get the youth voice into the global agenda.

But gender was affecting me on a personal and professional level, as well as affecting millions of women globally.

On the surface, these things may seem small compared to the harassment and threats to personal security women face in the workplace, especially in the health sector. But these microaggressions chipped away at my confidence and well-being.

And they are clues to deeper societal challenges that are arguably even more prominent in the health sector, such as not viewing women as leaders and drivers of health, and undervaluing their contributions.

Half of the US$3 trillion in contributions women make annually in health and social work is unpaid.

A few years later, I met a group of like-minded women who were as compelled and committed as I was to take action, be disruptive, and change the status quo in global health leadership. We launched Women in Global Health to encourage governments, academia and professional associations, the private sector, and others to achieve gender equality in global health leadership in their space of influence.

The formula is simple—leaders and their organizations can lead by example to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 by being gender transformative themselves.

[Read Roopa's full response on Picture It.]

Jenny Yi-Chen Lee: Do you think a woman leader can be both charismatic and strong, or will people criticize her for one or the other, regardless?

Kelly Thompson: I think there are a lot of levels to that question. Women get so much flak on the road to leadership that they almost have to put armor on, so they can seem really tough and strong. But some of it is our own gender bias against women, or perceiving any strong woman as unapproachable.

It's a tough dichotomy for women leaders trying to find that perfect balance.

There are negative words we tend to use to describe a woman leader when we see her as not fulfilling a feminine role. People might say, "Why are you so cold? You should be warm and loving and caring." But we don’t expect men to be all those things at once.

We saw this in the US presidential election with Hillary Clinton. People said, "She's cold. She's not approachable. How is she a grandma when she's so cold?"

Dhatt: And if you're too friendly, then you're perceived to be promiscuous.

Thompson: Exactly. Another example is in the media coverage last year of the final director general candidates for the World Health Organization. We saw a lot about how Dr. Tedros is very approachable, which he is, that’s his leadership style.

But in coverage of another finalist, Sania Nishtar, she was called a wonk, and people said, "She uses a lot of jargon, and so that makes her less approachable." We know Nishtar is an incredibly smart woman—the first female cardiologist of Pakistan—but she still had to constantly justify her own knowledge. Don't we want our leader to be knowledgeable?

So it's a tough dichotomy for women leaders trying to find that perfect balance—if you're open, you might be misinterpreted as not being knowledgeable or a strong leader, but then if you put on your armor, people say, "Why isn't she relatable?"

So much of health is driven by women that we cannot ignore gender.

Nathe: We know that, globally, the health workforce is largely female—except in the top spots, such as heads of hospitals and ministers of health. How can we fix this?

Dhatt: We have to start looking at the price women have to pay to get in top leadership positions—and what price we all pay for keeping them out of those positions.

We have a lot of data on how much sexual harassment takes place in the health workforce, but can we put a price tag on it? This is one thing we’re trying to do through our Gender-Equity Hub.

We've heard that greater gender equality could result in $28 trillion in economic growth. That number has started triggering a response from the private sector. We're seeing many more governments respond to it.

So sexual harassment is something that the health workforce really needs to address, along with the gender pay gap and leadership.

Thompson: So much of health is driven by women that we cannot ignore gender. We should be making sure that in every policy, every budgeting approach, we’re thinking about gender and its role.

We have a lot of information—now we need to change things.

Dr. Roopa Dhatt is cofounder and executive director of Women in Global Health and Dr. Kelly Thompson is programming and gender director. Jenny Yi-Chen Lee is a health advocate, researcher, and former intern at the World Health Organization.

Don’t miss Roopa Dhatt at SwitchPoint 2018, April 26 & 27! Get your tickets today.