Gender equality in leadership makes perfect sense

Women are underrepresented in positions of power in most fields, and only 28% of the world's 194 countries are headed by women

New Delhi : According to a recent UN report, progress towards gender equality is 300 years behind schedule. We are surprised that most political leaders are not making gender equality a top priority in today’s chaotic world. Women should make up at least half of those in positions of power, as mounting evidence suggests this is essential for community and economic vitality.

However, women are underrepresented in positions of power in most fields, and only 28% of the world’s 194 countries are headed by women. The COVID-19 pandemic emergency highlighted the effects of this inequality, as only a small percentage of countries managed to keep death rates low; many of the countries that did so were governed by women.

Gender inequality was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless governments recognise, invest in, and strengthen structures that support women and girls, these enormous vulnerabilities will remain unaddressed. It’s reasonable to assume that until we have more women in leadership positions, none of these recognitions, investments, or fortifications will occur.

Traditional gender roles, caregiving responsibilities, pay discrimination based on gender, unsafe working conditions, and a lack of social protection all had an impact on women’s decisions to leave the workforce during the pandemic. School closures and other stresses exacerbated mental health issues, violence, child marriage, pregnancies, FGM/AIDS, and other risks for girls. There is a huge gap in the provision of sexual and reproductive health care, with millions of women and girls being unable to access it. A total of 11.2 million young women were put in jeopardy of never going back to school.

Job departures were particularly noticeable in the health workforce. Over 70 per cent of it is made up of women, many of whom are underpaid, unpaid, overworked, and/or in precarious jobs.

The many pressures created by conflicts and climate change are increasing poverty and gender inequality further, including through rising energy and living costs and inflation. Increased out-of-pocket payments for essential services also require many families to choose between accessing essential health services and clean water and food. In some countries, the most basic human rights of women and girls are being revoked, such as the right to education.

As leaders of networks and multi-stakeholder partnerships that work to make gender equality and health for all a reality, we call on Heads of State and Governments to prioritize and resource this agenda every time they meet. They have plenty of opportunities to do that this year, including at the G7 and G20, at the Bretton Woods meetings, at regional leadership dialogues, and with all member states of the United Nations including during the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Summit and the High-Level Meetings on health at this year’s UN General Assembly.

To kick start the change, Helen Clark, Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH) Board Chair; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Women Deliver Board Chair; María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Women in Global Health, Board Chair and Gabriela Cuevas Barron, UHC2030 Steering Committee Co-Chair offer a four-point International Women’s Day plan (as published in The BMJ):

First, ensure that more women are in public and private sector leadership and decision-making roles and commit to gender parity by 2030. Women should be represented at all levels, from President to CEO to Director, on Boards and in managerial positions and as Ministers of important portfolios such as finance and foreign affairs. They must also be supported to stay in these demanding roles.

Second, ensure financial protection to minimize out-of-pocket health care payments so that all people can access the services they need. Advance progress on universal health coverage, so that everyone, everywhere can access quality health services, including comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, without the risk of financial hardship.

Third, with women making up most of the health and care workforce, ensure gender equity in leadership, address underpaid and unpaid work with adequate remuneration, close the gender pay gap, and invest in safe and decent work. Deliver training opportunities and violence- and discrimination-free environments for all health workers. This is beneficial for the quality of care, and the resilience of health systems, making us all less vulnerable to emergencies.

Fourth, we need to collect and analyze sex- and gender-disaggregated data, and practice gender-based budgeting, to ensure gender-responsive and gender-transformative policies that leave no one behind.

We need world leaders to focus on women and girls on International Women’s Day and on the other 364 days of the year. Everyone will benefit.