Three Questions with Samantha Law: Lifting Up Women in the Name of Health

Three Questions with Samantha Law: Lifting Up Women in the Name of Health

Samantha Law is a manager with Chemonics’ Global Health Division and serves as activity lead on HRH2030’s Women in Leadership activity.

International Woman’s Day falls on March 8 of each year to celebrate women and commemorate the movement for women’s rights. In our work to build the accessible, available, acceptable, and high-quality health workforce needed to improve health outcomes and advance universal health coverage, HRH2030 frequently cites women’s vital contributions to bolstering health systems. Still, we recognize that the inclusion and participation of women in health and social sector leadership positions is often overlooked. In this three questions piece, we explain how findings from our “Women in Leadership” activity underscore why it’s so critical to lift up women and encourage their leadership in the health and social sectors.

  1. While women comprise the majority of health and social workers worldwide, they are frequently underrepresented in executive and management positions in these sectors. Why is it important for us to include more women in leadership positions in health?

Women comprise seven out of ten health and social care workers globally and contribute US$3 trillion annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid care work. At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates a projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low- and lower-middle income countries. The WHO’s Health Employment and Economic Growth report spotlights how gender dynamics in the health workforce are underexplored, leading to poor retention, ineffective distribution, and missed opportunities in leadership and governance. These two forces combine to create a critical need to build the evidence-base on women in the health workforce. Having a better understanding of how to address the inequities when it comes to women in leadership will enable a more high-performing health workforce. Further, there is indication that women in leadership positions in health expand the agenda, giving greater priority to health and gender issues, such as reproductive health, and contribute to the scale up of the health and social workforce needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, as 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, it is critical to examine these two cadres which are dominated by female contributions, yet often overlooked for leadership positions.

  1. Can you tell us a bit about the HRH2030 activity you’re leading called “Women in Leadership” – how is your activity trying to bring to light the importance of women’s roles in the health and social sectors?

Barriers that prevent women from ascending to top leadership positions across sectors are well known. But there is less research on the effective interventions that work to increase the number of women in leadership positions. This HRH2030 activity seeks to better understand specific measures or initiatives that have led to increases in women in leadership in health to provide more evidence for targeted and effective investment.

HRH2030 first started to analyze the disparities between overall health workforce participation by women and diminishing representation of women in leadership positions in Jordan. Interestingly, men and women there had different perspectives on the barriers and enablers to career advancement. For example, women reported their top barrier to attaining leadership positions was a “lack of women in general/line management” followed closely by “discrimination against women by supervisors/line managers at point of promotion.” Juxtaposing this, the main barrier perceived by male respondents was “women having family and domestic responsibilities,” which was only the fifth most mentioned barrier by women.

While documenting barriers is critical to address inequities, we also realized there are major gaps in evidence of what really works to enable gender parity in leadership. HRH2030 first analyzed increases in women’s leadership in thirteen priority countries and identified Senegal as having promising gains in parity at the leadership level. Senegal makes for a unique case study. Their 2010 gender parity law mandated that half of each political party’s candidates in local and national elections were women. The country also enacted a national gender policy and had several female ministers of health. We will soon be releasing a report exploring the enabling factors and changes in the proportion of women in health leadership in Senegal.

  1. What are the next steps and overall aspirations for HRH2030’s “Women in Leadership” activity?

Because of the great, cyclical economic and social returns of investing in women, there is growing momentum for achieving gender equity in the health and social sectors, as demonstrated by the U.S. Government’s recent roll out of the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. The time is right for us to put forward evidence-based, systems-level solutions to reduce gender gaps. The Senegal work, when published, will be an important step but having more examples to shape the global compendium on what works to advance diverse leadership in the health and social sectors is critical. One of the other countries we identified as potentially having significant gains in women’s representation at health leadership levels is Madagascar. We’ll next conduct research there to add to the evidence and compare against findings in Senegal and Jordan. I hope these case studies add to our understanding of what works to promote women in leadership and pave the way for studying the next burning question—quantifying the positive impact of women’s leadership on the health and social sectors!

Photo: Samantha Law shares her views at an HRH2030 event on women and health.