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7 out of 10 global health leaders are men: Study

On April 13, 2020, a Forbes article drew the world's attention to a peculiar finding: Countries being led by women seem to be performing better than their male-led counterparts during the COVID-19 crisis. While this article's conclusions have very limited external validity, it got us thinking, why there are so few female leaders in the global health space? The 2020 Global Health 50/50 report released earlier this year to review equality- and gender-related policies and practices of 200 global organizations active in health and health policy, provides insights in this matter.


Global health is a system that's 'neither fair nor fit-for-purpose', the report concludes citing data which suggest that over 7 out of every 10 leaders in the space are men. Further, 80% are nationals of high-income countries and over 90% were educated in high-income countries.

The issue of gender parity is not one that is exclusive to the global health space. There are 655 million fewer women in the labor force than men, women spend three times the amount of time as men on unpaid care work in the home, 195 million fewer women than men are literate, 190 million fewer women than men have a bank account, and there are only 22 women in ministerial and parliamentary positions for every 100 men. In fact, a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) research in 2015 found that fully closing gender gaps in work could add as much as $28 trillion to annual GDP in 2025. Even in a more attainable scenario in which each country matches the progress toward gender parity of the best performer in their region, an additional $12 trillion could be added to GDP in this timeframe. Every region studied has the potential to increase its GDP by 8 to 16 percent between 2015 and 2025.

Results of each country matching the progress toward gender parity of its fastest-improving neighbor (MGI, 2015)

However, the issue is perhaps more relevant in the global health sector given the current COVID-19 scenario. According to Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director, women make up 70% of frontline workers in the health and social sector including nurses, midwives, cleaners and laundry workers. Further, it is reasonable to expect women, especially in less-developed countries, to take additional burdens during this period. With children out of school, mothers at home may still work, but many have also become teachers and caregivers, with consequences for those previously employed in those roles. For the 8.5 million women migrant domestic workers, often on insecure contracts, income loss also affects their dependents back at home. Professional women like South Korean mother-of-two Sung So-young are reporting the dilemma of needing to return to the office but are having to forgo that to enable their higher-earning partners’ continued work. As schools close in more countries, the number of mothers facing this across the world rises and the consequences accumulate.


Therefore, this is a moment for governments to recognize both the enormity of the contribution women make and the precarity of so many. Simultaneously, this is a moment to recognize the startling lack of women-representation at the top of the pyramid. This is especially true because, dedicating resources and re-prioritizing strategic directions at the top to tackle these issues faced by a hidden subset of the world's population requires diversity that the global health system does not have at present. Worse, it is likely to take another half-century for the global health system to reach gender parity.


Perhaps in this regard, COVID-19 provides Global Health systems with an opportunity for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives. There is scope for not just endurance, but recovery and growth. Perhaps, this is a time of reckoning for our national and personal values and a recognition of the strength of solidarity for public services and society as a whole. This is an opportunity to build back better, stronger, resilient and equal societies. As the world becomes sensitized to these issues in the light of an unprecedented disaster, people seem to yearning for change, to learn from our results and to take action.


It is therefore time for bold prioritization. Taking the right steps now with an eye to a restored future could bring both relief and hope to the women of the world.

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