While there is a significant improvement in the key gender equity measure in Health – one third of national delegations in this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) are being led by women – the stark reality is that women are still underrepresented in the sector, says Dr Roopa Dhatt, executive director of Women in Global Health (WGH).
“Women represent 70% of the health workforce and 90% of frontline health workers worldwide, however, they hold just a quarter of leadership positions,” she says.
“Now, with supporters in more than 43 countries and 47 official chapters predominantly in low-income countries, WGH is campaigning for equal representation for women in health leadership; equitable pay and ending unpaid work for women health workers; protection; safe and decent work; and the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. These are the essential foundations for strong health systems, universal health coverage and global health security,” she adds.
WGH is a women-led movement advocating for gender equity in global health.
Dhatt was referring to the annual count by WGH which revealed a nine percent increase in the number of women occupying chief delegate positions at the 76th and most recent World Health Assembly (WHA76) held in Geneva, Switzerland from May 21 to 30, bringing women’s overall representation in decision making to 32%.
“This is a significant improvement in a key gender equity measure that for years has been stuck at less than a quarter of delegations led by women,” says Dhatt.
Malaysia is one of the countries with a women chief delegate. Other countries are: Albania, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Bahrain, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Canada, Chile, Comoros, Cook Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Finland, Guyana, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liberia, Luxembourg, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Senegal, Seychelles, Slovenia, South Sudan, Sweden, Timor-Leste, Uganda, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zambia.
“While we commend all the national governments who have put women in charge and we acknowledge this significant improvement in progress towards gender equal leadership, for every woman working in health, there are still three men making top-down decisions about health priorities and the design and delivery of health programmes,” she says.
More women, better outcomes
Dhatt reiterates the importance of recognising the invaluable expertise that women bring to the table.
“We must acknowledge that as the World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrates its 75th anniversary, we cannot afford to wait another 75 years to achieve gender parity in global health decision-making. WHO has a responsibility to address the historic under representation of women in WHA delegations because when women’s voices are sidelined, we all suffer from the loss of their expertise in delivering health,” says Dhatt.
“WGH and its 49 chapters worldwide are calling for a significant increase in women-led delegations for the 2024 World Health Assembly, with a target of 50% representation. Governments, as the decision-makers for their delegations, must be held accountable for the marginalisation of women’s voices in leadership, especially in a sector where women are the face of healthcare,” she says.
“The World Health Assembly serves as the highest standard-setting body in global health. Hence, decisions made at WHA shape global health priorities, making them crucial in life and death situations for women and girls,” she adds.
Dhatt highlights that when men dominate decision-making roles, health systems will favour male perspectives, resulting in systems and services set up to prioritise men’s needs and better-paid positions and promotions going to men, despite them being the minority in the sector.
WGH’s recent report, The State of Women and Leadership in Global Health, delves into gender inequality in leadership and its impact on health system functionality and efficiency.
It emphasises that limited leadership prospects for women contribute to the current Great Resignation phenomenon, which is undermining healthcare systems worldwide.
“Enhancing opportunities for women in leadership, closing the gender pay gap, and improving working conditions through paid maternity leave and family-friendly flexible policies are essential steps in addressing systemic health issues,” concludes Dhatt.