April 22, 2024

Women Gain Ground in Health Leadership: Progress Towards Gender Equity at World Health Assembly

On 24 May 2022, WHO Member States re-elected Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to serve a second five-year term as Director-General of the World Health Organization. Dr Tedros was first elected in 2017. His re-election was confirmed during the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva. He was the sole candidate. Today’s vote was the culmination of an election process that began in April 2021 when Member States were invited to submit proposals for candidates for the post of Director-General. The WHO Executive Board, meeting in January 2022, nominated Dr Tedros to stand for a second term. Dr Tedros’s new mandate officially commences on 16 August 2022. A Director-General can be re-appointed once, in accordance with World Health Assembly rules and procedures. https://www.who.int/news/item/24-05-2022-world-health-assembly-re-elects-dr-tedros-adhanom-ghebreyesus-to-second-term-as-who-director-general

In a remarkable stride towards gender equity, nearly one-third of national delegations at this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) are led by women, surpassing the longstanding disparity that had kept their representation below 25%. This significant improvement, according to Women in Global Health (WGH), an organization advocating for gender equality in global health, reflects a 9% increase in the number of women occupying Chief Delegate positions at WHA76, elevating their overall decision-making roles to 32%.

Dr. Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director of Women in Global Health, expressed appreciation for the governments that have appointed women to these leadership positions. However, she emphasized that despite women constituting approximately 70% of the health workforce and up to 90% of frontline health workers, critical health decisions are predominantly made by men.

Dr. Dhatt stressed the urgency of acknowledging women’s invaluable expertise and the necessity of achieving gender parity in global health decision-making. As the World Health Organization (WHO) commemorates its 75th anniversary, she asserted that waiting another 75 years to attain this equality is unacceptable. The absence of women’s perspectives and expertise in healthcare delivery poses severe consequences for global health.

Addressing the historic underrepresentation of women in WHA delegations, Dr. Dhatt called on the WHO to take responsibility for rectifying the situation. She further held governments accountable for marginalizing women’s voices in leadership roles, particularly considering women’s prominent role as the face of healthcare.

Women in Global Health, along with its 49 chapters worldwide, aims to achieve 50% representation of women-led delegations at the 2024 World Health Assembly. They emphasize the pivotal role of the WHA in shaping global health priorities, making gender equality in decision-making a matter of life and death for women and girls.

The dominance of men in decision-making positions within health systems often leads to a bias favoring male perspectives. This systemic bias not only hampers women’s career progression but also compromises the quality of health systems by neglecting their professional expertise and knowledge. It perpetuates a cycle where better-paid positions and promotions are primarily awarded to men, despite them being the minority in the sector.

A recent report by Women in Global Health titled “The State of Women and Leadership in Global Health” highlights the gender inequality in leadership roles and its detrimental impact on health system functionality and efficiency. It further underscores that limited leadership prospects for women contribute to the ongoing “Great Resignation” phenomenon, which poses a threat to healthcare systems worldwide.

Dr. Dhatt emphasized the need to enhance opportunities for women in leadership, close the gender pay gap, and improve working conditions through initiatives such as paid maternity leave and family-friendly policies. These steps are vital in addressing the systemic health issues that have impeded progress towards gender equality in the field.

As the global community strives for equitable and inclusive healthcare systems, achieving gender parity in health leadership remains paramount. The advancements witnessed at this year’s World Health Assembly provide hope for a future where women’s voices are fully represented and their expertise is utilized to tackle pressing health challenges. The progress made thus far serves as a testament to the potential for further strides towards gender equity in global health leadership.

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