On International Women’s Day, World Health Organization (WHO) is celebrating all the women who have had a pioneering role in advancing science and health.
One of the best known was Florence Nightingale, a 19th- century statistician and founder of modern nursing, who understood the benefits of hygiene and sanitation in preventing disease.
Fe del Mundo a paediatrician from the Philippines, who went on to do pioneering work on infectious diseases including dengue, was the first female student at Harvard Medical School.
Anandi Gopal Joshi was one of the first Indian female doctors, appointed physician-in-charge at a hospital in central India, before she died of tuberculosis aged just 22.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, born shortly after Florence Nightingale, taught herself French so that she could obtain a medical degree at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. She became Britain’s first female doctor.
In the 20th century, Anne Szarewski discovered the cause of cervical cancer, leading to the first-ever HPV vaccine and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi’s work on HIV was fundamental to the identification of the virus as the cause of AIDS.
In 2019, however, women are still only a third of researchers worldwide, on average. Some regions such as Central Asia as well as Latin America and the Caribbean have a nearly equal gender balance, but in Europe and North America, the proportion of women remains around 30-35%.
Women also struggle to rise up the ranks of both health and science. Women make up just 12% of the membership of national science academies around the world. Female health workers comprise 70% of the health workforce worldwide, yet women occupy only 25% of leadership positions in health.
And the pay differential is high: the gender pay gap in health and social sectors is around 26% in high-income countries and 29% in upper-middle income countries.
Gender discrimination, implicit bias, sexual harassment, and assault have been found to be systemic barriers to women’s advancement in global health careers. These are compounded by a lack of policies to accommodate having children (including flexible working arrangements and increased paternity leave).
There are positive signs that change is coming. In WHO for example, women hold 60% of senior leadership positions. WHO also has an active gender equity hub to ensure that a gender lens is applied on health workforce policies worldwide. Things are changing in academia as well: last year, nearly 40% of new members into the National Academy of Medicine were women.
Evidence is emerging already that implementing flexible working arrangements, providing mentorship programmes, and instituting formal polices on gender discrimination and harassment, and gender-specific leadership training can break down the barriers for women to lead in global health.
However, it is important to transform the very systems that women work in.This may require re-examining traditional career trajectories and methods of promotion. Too often, women are encouraged to mould to a system that was designed for men. However, new waves of women leaders are succeeding in ways that reflect tolerance, cooperation and resolve. These women may lead in different ways, sharing power and information while enhancing other people’s self-worth.
The argument for increasing the representation of women leaders in science and health is often economic, on the basis that diverse perspectives in leadership can benefit business. But a business case cannot be the only reason to advance women in science.
On 8 March 2019, it’s a moment to recall that principles of human rights and social equity require that women play just as significant roles in science and health as men.