Africa needs more women leaders in public health
Ebere Okereke , Margaret Gyapong
A frontline health worker. /CFP
A frontline health worker. /CFP

A frontline health worker. /CFP

Editor's note: Ebere Okereke is a public health physician specializing in global health security and health system strengthening and a senior technical adviser at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and honorary senior public health adviser to Africa CDC. Margaret Gyapong is director of the Institute of Health Research at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana, and a medical anthropologist by training. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Women account for about 70 percent of the global health workforce, often delivering essential services on the frontlines under challenging conditions and they are usually underpaid or unpaid. Without the contributions of women, health systems would collapse.

Yet, very few of these women hold leadership roles. Women hold only 25 percent of senior roles – and only 5 percent of CEO-level roles – in the health sector globally. As a result, women's critical insights and experiences are largely excluded from the decision-making and policy defining processes. 

This is especially true in Africa, where gender stereotypes and cultural norms keep women healthcare workers in lower-level jobs. Too often across Africa, women are missing from the conversations that shape health policy, research agendas and funding mechanisms on our continent. As leading female health professionals from Nigeria and Ghana, we've witnessed this impact first-hand.

Women have played critical roles in the pandemic response. Women provide vital care and health services, but also provide leadership in responding to the pandemic and preparing for recovery. 

There's strong evidence that female-led countries handled the pandemic response better. As African countries work to recover from the economic, social and health impacts of COVID-19, women health leaders must have a seat at the table. 

Studies have shown that women leaders are more likely than men to address the needs of the community and to direct funding toward education, health and nutrition, as well as to support critical interventions such as immunization, antenatal care and health facilities. In short, when women are included in decision-making, it leads to better health outcomes for everyone.

Despite the Africa Union declaring African Women's Decade 2010-2020, women remain underrepresented in the workforce outside health and under-represented in health leadership. 

We must expand opportunities for women to participate as shapers, providers and leaders of health systems – and not just as beneficiaries of health programs. This means addressing the barriers that prevent women from advancing in the health sector and advocating for women's voices in leadership. Governments, the private sector, health institutions and forums, and individual women and men all have a role to play.

A critical first step to closing the gender leadership gap is identifying the barriers that prevent women from gaining health leadership roles in the first place. In many African countries, for example, girls and women do not have the same opportunities for education and employment as boys and men. 

Even when women can access these opportunities, ingrained beliefs and barriers like social norms, gender stereotypes and discrimination in the workplace can keep them from moving forward. More significantly, women, are often excluded from the informal structures and networks that support leadership development, hence less likely to have access to sponsors and mentors who can enable access to leadership opportunities.

Removing these barriers will not happen overnight and will require a whole-of-society approach. This means ensuring that girls and women have equal access to quality education and training; implementing policies to engage more young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math; and supporting and enacting legislation that prioritizes gender balance, pay equity and non-discrimination in the workplace. Being intentional about providing women with access to mentoring coaching and leadership development opportunities are also crucial.

Stethoscope examination of children in Africa. /CFP
Stethoscope examination of children in Africa. /CFP

Stethoscope examination of children in Africa. /CFP

African health forums and conferences must also ensure that women leaders have a seat at the table, since these events often provide platforms for stakeholders to shape health priorities, forge partnerships and network with key players in the health sector. 

The upcoming 2nd International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA 2022) has a specific focus on engaging current and future women leaders, with one track centered on the role of women in health in Africa. Choosing to focus on women not just as recipients of health programs, but also as health providers, health advocates and leaders in health, is an important step toward acknowledging the challenges that women in health face – as well as engaging a broader audience as advocates and allies for gender equity in public health.

Mentorship programs and peer networks for African women in the health sector can also help inspire young women and provide them with critical skills and insights to advance their careers and pursue leadership roles. 

Both women and men have a role to play as mentors: male allies are a critical voice to challenge gender bias, share leadership expertise, and advocate for greater female representation in health leadership. We can take advantage of the African Union-led Network of African Women Mediators (FemWise-Africa), to ensure that women are mentored into leadership positions.

Women's participation in the public health workforce is vital at every level: from community health workers, nurses, midwives and doctors, to researchers, scientists, and public health advocates. But when women are underrepresented in leadership roles in any of these professions, everyone loses. By challenging the status quo and building more gender-inclusive health systems, we can create a better, healthier future for all.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

Search Trends