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Women Should Lift Other Women Up The Leadership Ladder

by Chloee Bazin-Chevry (SYP, GHMe 2020), Joan Nkamushaba (SYP, GHMe 2020), Penny Sun (SYP, GHMe 2020), and Shubha Nagesh (Mentor, GHMe 2020)

United States workforce data shows that women, particularly women of color, have been hardest hit by job losses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, the UN’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows that only 20% of countries analysed have created any gender-sensitive responses to COVID-19, and only 12% have introduced comprehensive measures. The International Labor Organization warned in June that the inequitable recovery responses to COVID-19 threaten to reverse some of the modest, decades-long global progress towards gender equality.

Gender Inequality

Even before the pandemic, the Global Health 50/50 report shows that only 30% of top global health leaders are women, and only 5% of them are women from Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). Further, though 75% of organisations publicly commit to gender equality, only 60% have formal policies to promote workplace gender equality. The 2019 “Delivered by Women, Led by Men” WHO report found that although women comprise 70% of the global health workforce, they hold only 25% of senior roles, and female-majority health professions are given lower social value, status, and pay. In addition, female health workers face additional barriers to staying in the health sector — such as a persistent gender pay gap and workplace bias, discrimination, violence and sexual harassment — and barriers to entering the workforce at all (barriers to education access and cultural, familial, and childcare pressures). These are critical barriers to address as the world begins building back better: an analysis of the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Service Coverage Index finds that health workforce density is critical to achieving UHC, particularly in LMICs.

"Although women comprise 70% of the global health workforce, they hold only 25% of senior roles, and female-majority health professions are given lower social value, status, and pay."

Prior to COVID-19, the needle had marginally shifted such that a few women have achieved the highest levels of global leadership- notably, Winnie Byanyima, the current Executive Director of UNAIDS has relentlessly championed gender-equality movements; Dr. Mo Im Kim, the Korean public health hero who is the former president of the International Council of Nurses; and Agnes Binagwaho, the current Vice-Chancellor of University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda shifted healthcare in Rwanda and made her country a benchmark model for others to follow; and many more.

Women in a Crisis

Does gender really matter in leadership? Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effectiveness of women-led countries’ response to the pandemic has received global attention, and a recent Harvard Business Review study found that women are better leaders during a crisis. Perhaps it is too early to make strong assertions, but there has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that female leaders make a real difference in a crisis. One study shows that COVID-outcomes are systematically and significantly better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive policy responses they adopted. For example, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan led rigorous investigative efforts to track travel and contact history for every patient upon the discovery of the first infected person, helping to isolate and contain the contagion before a mass community outbreak was possible.

While factors affecting the pandemic are likely to be complex, attitudes about risk and empathy do matter in crisis. The term “Leadership” has historically been associated with masculine attributes such as being decisive, aggressive, forceful, and dominant. However, women leaders bring an increase in leadership competencies such as compassion, empathy, communication, and collaboration to leadership teams. These are crucial skills for leading in crisis moments when people look to their leaders for reassurance, inspiration, and acknowledgement. However, the advantages of fusing masculine and feminine attributes remain in stable times; women are simply given fewer opportunities to lead except in risky crisis moments when the likelihood of failure is high. So long as we continue to connect leadership with masculine attributes, we can expect that female leaders will continue to be overlooked even when their performance is higher.

Source: Shubha Nagesh

The Power of Mentorship

To attempt to counter this glass ceiling, many formal mentorships, fellowship, and professional development programs have delivered really well. A successful model should redirect the benefits of the “old boys network” towards women from the global south, with women supporting women to exponentially grow a network of former mentees to become mentors for others in her own country or community. The chain must grow, with women continuously lifting others behind them to stand on their shoulders and climb the leadership ladder. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and we must ensure she feels like those above her have her back!

Could Asia and Africa initiate and develop Mentorships within their countries? Can they initiate a system where every woman leader who has emerged from the global south and made it big, takes on someone just starting out and enables her to emerge to the point where she reaches out to another colleague to allow her to emerge? Our glass ceilings should become the floor for those who come after us.

Finally, we must recognise that the cause is more important than the individual - to that extent, supporting women to surpass us on the ladder pave the way for them to become the next leaders seems the right thing to do. Research shows that people who have connected to a purpose greater than themselves are happier and more contented, enjoy richer relationships, and are more resilient in the face of adversity than those who haven’t. They are also far more inspiring leaders. So, enabling our mentees and junior colleagues to join such a cause is key to raising women's voices in the halls and at the tables where decisions are made, agendas are set, and resources are divided.

As Ban Ki Moon summarised,

“Women hold up more than half the sky and represent much of the world’s unrealised potential.”

So, let’s go out there and join the global chain of women mentors, for the more we use our gifts to help others get what they want, the more we attract and receive what we want.


Thank you to Chloee, Joan, Penny and Shubha for your valuable perspective. For any inquiries related to the GHMe Blog, please contact our team at

Disclaimer: This blog was prepared by the author, in his/her/their personal capacity. The opinions, views, and thoughts expressed in the blog belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Global Health Mentorships.


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