Humanity needs equitable leadership to thrive

If gender diversity is profitable, why are we in health so slow to embrace gender equality in leadership?

In Summary

•Having worked in health for over 15 years now, I have seen firsthand the impact that leadership can have on the health outcomes of a population.

•According to UNAIDS, girls and young women in Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 25 percent of new HIV infections in 2020, despite making up just a tenth of the population.

Leadership that ignores and devalues the contributions of a key demographic – women – cannot be inclusive .
Leadership that ignores and devalues the contributions of a key demographic – women – cannot be inclusive .
Image: Ozone

A popular quote within media circles is: “If it bleeds, it leads”. But for how long will we watch while humanity bleeds? The Covid-19 pandemic. Baby formula shortage. Political turmoil. High energy prices. Rising inflation. Global warming. Widening social and economic inequality. Horrific human rights abuse. These are just some of the headlines we have become accustomed to seeing in the news.

But these are not just news stories. Behind these headlines are real human beings who are every day fighting to survive against the odds.

Let’s face it: human suffering is caused more by human decisions – both action and inaction – than by nature. The challenges we face today, be they health, political, social or economic, can be traced back to decisions made by individuals in positions of leadership.

Having worked in health for over 15 years now, I have seen firsthand the impact that leadership can have on the health outcomes of a population. In that time, I’ve learned an important lesson: that leadership that fails to address the needs of ordinary people and help them thrive is not leadership; it is dominance.

For far too long, health leadership has been dominated by leaders (often male) who have acted as bastions of power protecting the interests of the global north – to the detriment of the global south.

The power imbalance in health leadership and disparities in shaping and delivery of health would explain why, for example, the African region accounted for approximately 95 per cent of global malaria deaths in 2020, many of them babies and toddlers in Sub-Saharan Africa; and why only 15 per cent of Africa’s adult population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19 despite calls by the World Health Organization (WHO) for countries to vaccinate at least 70% of their populations by mid-2022.

The inequalities persistent in global health, exacerbated by exclusive leadership, are also the reason why Sub-Saharan Africa remains the epicentre of the HIV epidemic despite advances in prevention and treatment. According to UNAIDS, girls and young women in Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 25 percent of new HIV infections in 2020, despite making up just a tenth of the population.

To solve the world’s most pressing challenges we must look at their root causes. Yes, poverty, unemployment and global warming are major global issues deserving of our attention – but so is inequality in leadership, which is in itself a contributor to these three issues and many others. Leadership that ignores and devalues the contributions of a key demographic – women – cannot be inclusive and therefore cannot adequately address the challenges of the group it excludes, be they in health or otherwise.

"For far too long, health leadership has been dominated by leaders (often male) who have acted as bastions of power protecting the interests of the global north – to the detriment of the global south."
DR NORAH OBUDHO: "For far too long, health leadership has been dominated by leaders (often male) who have acted as bastions of power protecting the interests of the global north – to the detriment of the global south."

If we are to see change, we, collectively, need to play a greater role in electing leaders who understand that humanity is not a monolithic entity with the same set of needs. Those of us in positions of power and influence also need to use these tools to make room for a new generation of leaders that is more reflective of who we are as the human race, all differences included. This means equipping women, people of colour and minorities with the leadership skills required to solve today’s challenges and steer us toward a brighter future.

The benefits of having more women in leadership, in particular, cannot be overstated. Research has shown a direct correlation between greater women’s representation and profitability, with the Women Matter Africa Report by McKinsey & Company indicating that the earning margin from companies with at least a quarter share of women on their boards was, on average, 20 percent higher than the industry average.

So if gender diversity is profitable, and indeed there is data to support this, why are we in health so slow to embrace gender equality in leadership? What steps can we take to balance the leadership equation for the good of all?

It starts with creating equitable education, employment and growth opportunities for women. For WomenLift Health, this means changing the face of global health leadership by expanding the power and influence of talented women in the field.

Through our Leadership Journey programme, which supports mid-career women in the health sector to reimagine leadership through authentic, inclusive, strategic and impactful approaches, we are equipping women with the skills required to not only do the work, but to navigate workplace politics, negotiate better terms and find their footing on their way up the career ladder. They are also provided with coaching and mentorship by professional women who are experts in their fields and can guide them, open doors and mention their names in spheres of influence to prepare them for leadership.

Solving the leadership challenge requires us to first interrogate the role of leadership in creating and solving problems. Just like exclusionary leadership results in widening of the inequality gap, creating haves, have-nots and a middle-class that could be swayed either way by one windfall or one calamity, equitable leadership will bear equitable social, health and economic outcomes based on its values of diversity, inclusion and respect for human dignity. That is what all of humanity needs to thrive.

Dr Norah Obudho is the East Africa Programme Director, WomenLift Health.