Women Leaders in Global Health & Development: Challenging Stereotypes and Sharing Challenges

By Annie O’Donnell


Photo: Hanna Hwang/WGHA

This last Thursday, over 100 women, and a few champions for women, gathered at Global Washington for an event jointly hosted with the Washington Global Health Alliance to discuss the unique challenges that women face in pursuing careers in global health and development. Topics included survival skills for balancing family and career, the importance of mentorship, and how to know whether an opportunity is right for you.

Panelists included Emily Bancroft, president of VillageReach; Willa Marth, vice president of equity & global programs for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands; and Fatema Sumar, regional deputy vice president (Europe, Asia, Pacific and Latin America) for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The event was moderated by Dena Morris, president & CEO of WGHA.

Andrea Voytko, deputy director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provided opening remarks, setting the stage for the conversation around gender equality in global health and development leadership.

NOTE: You can catch the full video of Thursday’s event on Global Washington’s Facebook page.

This topic is especially timely in today’s political climate as evidenced by the Women’s March, and the movements to recognize and mitigate sexual abuses and harassment towards women. As many of us know, the U.S. is not the global leader in gender equity and these numbers are reflected in the dearth of female leaders in global health and development fields. How can it be then that organizations that speak of the contribution and empowering potential of women as a key lever in global poverty alleviation, have boards that are made up of mostly white men?

Though there has been some change in policy towards gender equity within global health and development organizations, how can we ensure that women are not only hired into leadership positions, but also that there is space created that allows them to really thrive. This environment may look different from what their male colleagues need.

Fatema reflected on the first challenge, that is, how to balance and maintain a really robust career and portfolio on the international stage, while still juggling what’s most important to her – family. International positions often require a large amount of traveling, as well as time away from family in the evenings. We may need to work in war zones, as well as communicate with people who aren’t used to women in leadership. Navigating clients and beneficiaries in different time zones adds even more variables to a busy schedule. Women with infants at home may find it necessary to pump their breast milk on airplanes, and cook meals ahead of time for their families. Fatema admitted, “It’s hard work. At times, it’s exhausting. But it’s worth it. The things you get to see and do are life-changing. And if I wasn’t in that position, it would have probably been somebody else… who looks nothing like me.”

Willa spoke of another challenge, from the perspective of being a women and a woman of color. “I’ve experienced the micro-aggressions. The tokenism. The expectation that you will represent women from all minorities,” she said. Nonetheless, Willa entreated the audience members, “Trust your magic. Allow yourself to try new things. But also, question your magic. Are you the right person to be at the table? Who’s not at the table? What do I have to do to get them at the table? Grow your edges and look at the privileges we all have.”

A common thread from the three panelists, and a takeaway that resonated with me personally, was the utmost significance of having a mentor. The panelists spoke of influential people (some of whom were men, or people not of their same race, or even working in different sectors) who helped them to recognize qualities that they didn’t recognize in themselves.

Willa spoke of her mentor, a white woman at Planned Parenthood, who engaged with her in conversations about the intersectionality of race and gender. Willa encouraged the crowd to seek out people who can contribute diverse insights – discussions would be richer because of it, and organizations would benefit.

The momentum of today’s women’s movement is exciting. It’s encouraging to see that even if there isn’t a women in a fabulous pantsuit in the oval office, women have not lost faith. Though we all want to do our part to chip away at the glass ceiling, does that mean that women who decide to pass up opportunities in leadership positions are at risk of undermining the progress of the movement? The panelists resoundingly answered, “No.”

Emily recounted a time when she chose to forgo a shot at an influential leadership position because she didn’t believe it would be conducive to her personal life. Later on, she had another opportunity, and with her kids being older, she was confident that she could take on the position and be successful in her role.

The only condition, panelists argued, when it was not acceptable to pass up a promising opportunity is one that women are commonly known to suffer: Self-Doubt.

Many women tend to experience what’s commonly known as “imposter syndrome” – something their male counterparts don’t tend to experience. Whether these fears stem from systemic barriers as a result of gender bias, or something else, they undoubtedly impact the prevalence of women seeking out a place at the metaphorical table (or the actual table, in the case of boards that don’t reflect the demographics they hope to serve).

So, for those of us who aren’t in leadership positions just yet, but aspire to be –where do we go from here?

Dena’s final question to the panelists was what they know now that they wish they’d known at the start of their career. Emily reiterated the importance of listening to a mentor, and not to brush off the strengths they see in you. Acknowledge them and own them, and then use them to your advantage. Also, she encouraged us to be champions for other women, recognizing their contributions and giving them credit – because they don’t get it often enough.

Fatema encouraged women starting out in their careers to learn how to really take care of themselves. “Get your bills in order, know where your money is going. Learn to multitask, learn to cook!” She said that by being the CEO and CFO of your own life, you will earn transferable skills that you’ll need in leadership positions. Also, teach yourself to relax and have fun along the way. There’s no better way to cope with the stress of competing priorities.

It’s an uphill battle, but the ground that has been made is promising. In the world of global health and development, fewer women are likely to die during childbirth in developing countries; and far more children will live beyond infancy than in the 80’s when a real commitment towards poverty alleviation began. Organizations that take on this laudable development work are progressively adding new policies to be more equitable and inclusive for women and people of color because they recognize the contribution they bring. This gives me hope not only for changing the genetic makeup of those seated at the table, but also for the progress in global health and development because of it.

Annie O’Donnell has a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development and is passionate about women’s economic empowerment. She currently works at SightLife Surgical- an organization working to cure corneal blindness by 2040.