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Women’s participation as leaders in healthcare

Women’s participation as leaders in healthcare

Johannesburg, South Africa. As we celebrate Women’s Month, let us reflect on the role of women’s participation as leaders in healthcare – an area underexplored but a very crucial part of the conversations on improving healthcare systems.

Health care appears to be highly represented by women in several dimensions. According to the International Finance Corporation, Women represent 70 percent of the 43 million workers in the global health care industry. As we have seen it globally, women also dominate the market of health consumers, making about four-fifths of health purchases. Women make about 80% of decisions regarding their family’s healthcare needs. Women are also the backbone of the informal workforce of unpaid caregivers of sick relatives, community members and children. A global study by the Lancet Commission on Women and Health estimates this to contribute US$3 trillion in health care annually.

Despite the growing number of female healthcare personnel and dominance in the industry, the available data shows that women are still underrepresented in senior leadership roles. According to the World Economic Forum, only 35 percent of the leadership roles in the global health care industry are held by women. For global health organisations, less than 25% of them have gender parity in senior leadership. 

While we see a lot of women flooding into other areas of healthcare, the pipeline for leadership positions is not proportional to this large worker base. The factors are not unique to several recurring issues that surface including occupational segregation, underlying biases, and power dynamics prevalent in the health care industry and of course limited career development and access to leadership, decision-making and power. 

In 2017, a photo showing only men in the White House of America were discussing the future of maternity under the new healthcare bill sparked concern about equality in the healthcare industry. No women were involved in decision making. Out of 51 countries in Africa, only 13 female ministers oversee health across the continent. 

Improving global health and gender equality are integral components of the 2030 agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals. Many companies have gender equality policies only on paper, but these are not implemented to cover the gender equality gap. If they are successfully implemented, by now we should be having equality in healthcare decision making to speed up the process of improving healthcare systems. 

Given the lower participation rate of women in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) especially in Africa, reduces the perspectives on gender dimensions of health and the inability to advocate for women’s health agendas and further exacerbate the gaps in women’s leadership in the health care sector. Further, there is a scarcity of local female role models which affects career choice, especially in Africa given that most countries are largely rural and young women often pioneer their own success. 

Why do we need more women in healthcare financing senior leadership to improve healthcare systems across Africa? Research shows that gender diversity in leadership teams creates innovation, customized solutions to different problems, high-performance teams, high productivity, and better financial performance. All these things have benefits in improving the healthcare systems of the African countries where women need more access. 



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