The Center for Innovation in Global Health Challenges the Global Health Status Quo With WomenLift Health
“Despite comprising 70% of the global health workforce, women hold only 25% of leadership positions, a disparity that compromises health outcomes and initiatives around the world,” says Michele Barry, MD, founder of WomenLift Health and Director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health. She and Amie Batson, Executive Director of WomenLift, have been tackling this issue head-on.
In 2020, the center launched WomenLift Health, an organization dedicated to expanding the power and influence of talented and diverse women in global health and to catalyzing systemic change to achieve gender equality in leadership. WomenLift Health was born out of the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference that began at Stanford in 2017 and has spread globally. Now, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they have hit the ground running, assembling thousands of people around this central and critical goal.
“WomenLift Health has already passed some tremendous milestones in its first year,” says Barry. “Today, we are proud of those accomplishments, but there is much, much more we need to do to affect transformative change for women working in global health in all sectors.”
Change at Scale
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit women hard—exacerbating the inequalities in our health and economic systems. The year 2020 saw dramatic spikes in domestic violence, loss of employment for women, reductions in sexual and reproductive health services, and incredible sacrifice by the predominantly female health care workforce, resulting in concerns that the pandemic could set back gender equality for decades.
But the pandemic has also presented opportunities. Women at every level are redefining what it means to be an effective leader in the 21st century—and nowhere is it more evident than in the decisions that women leaders are making to curb the spread of the virus. It is clear that gender parity in leadership is more than an issue of equity: It is the missing link that will help us solve complex health challenges.
Michele Barry, MD, FACP, FASTMH
“This is not about ‘fixing women’ but changing organizations and society. We also have to influence the environment where women live and work, transforming the policies and norms that impact them every day”
WomenLift Health is based on the belief that advancing diverse women leaders will result in more robust decision-making that benefits from broadened perspectives, talents, and lived experiences, ultimately leading to improved health outcomes for all. During 2020 they brought that idea one step closer to reality, despite the disproportionate effects of COVID-19.
In early 2020, WomenLift Health launched the inaugural Leadership Journey—the highest-caliber leadership program for women in health. The Leadership Journey provides women leaders with personal coaches, mentors, and peer support to which many women leaders have never had access.
The leadership cohort, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. As the pandemic continues to test the resilience of health systems and exacerbate existing inequalities, WomenLift Health’s speaker series has brought together dynamic women and men from around the world to explore gender and power dynamics in health and outline action we can take to prioritize women’s leadership. It has featured such accomplished leaders as Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, among others.
The fourth annual Women Leaders in Global Health conference took place virtually in October 2020, with two days on women’s leadership in South Asia and Africa and culminating in a day of global dialogue. The conference demonstrated an absolute commitment to inclusivity by amplifying diverse voices, prioritized women from countries underrepresented at global health decision-making tables, and hosted provocative conversations on critical topics. More than 2,300 people from 50 countries gathered to help shape a collective vision for diverse women’s leadership in health.
“The COVID pandemic has shown us just how important diverse leadership is to solving global health issues,” says Batson. “We invest in talented women leaders, but we know it is not enough to just focus on the individual—this is not about ‘fixing women’ but changing organizations and society. We also have to influence the environment where women live and work, transforming the policies and norms that impact them every day.”
On the Horizon
A recent WHO report summed it up well: Women deliver global health—men lead it. WomenLift Health believes that health leadership must reflect the impassioned and diverse workforce that makes up our community by 2030, which is why WomenLift Health put together a 10-year plan with ambitious targets.
In 2021, WomenLift Health is planning to launch its second Global Leadership Journey cohort and expand its reach to India and East Africa, working with partners to launch the Leadership Journey and Workshops for women in these geographies. Their speaker series will continue with a regional focus led by country partners. The annual Women Leaders in Global Health conference is expected to be a highlight. COVID-19 permitting, the 2021 Women Leaders in Global Health event will be hosted by partners in India.
“Change will only happen if we are deliberate about placing women and girls at the center of recovery efforts—that means prioritizing their leadership in all of our institutions, at every level”
Over the next 10 years, WomenLift Health plans to reach tens of thousands of women through a portfolio of interventions at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. They will expand to serve women in more than 25 countries—employing a country-owned and country-led model where the strategy and interventions are led, designed, and executed by and with local partners. “At this critical moment in the fight for gender equality in health leadership, WomenLift Health is more important than ever,” says Barry. “Change will only happen if we are deliberate about placing women and girls at the center of recovery efforts—that means prioritizing their leadership in all of our institutions, at every level.”