How We Can End Global Gender Gaps in Health Care
It’s been estimated that more than 5 billion people — 63% of the world’s population — lack safe, timely, and affordable access to life-changing and life-saving surgery. In our work providing comprehensive cleft care and plastic reconstructive surgery across the globe, we’ve met women who would do anything for their children and families — walking days to reach a clinic or fighting to survive a dangerous birth. For all their heroism, too many still die because essential health care services are too far out of reach.
One critical, but often overlooked, factor leading to a lack of care access is the global gender gap in the composition of the health care workforce, especially in leadership positions. According to the World Health Organization, women hold 70 to 90% of the nursing and long-term care jobs but just 25% of leadership roles. Global health care is delivered by women but mostly led by men — especially in countries that face dangerous shortages of medical experts.
The solution is both obvious and profound: We need more women in medicine, more women in health care leadership, and more training and mentorship opportunities for women and girls. By providing girls with educational opportunities in medicine and health care leadership, we not only help end gender inequality in this field, we ultimately improve health equity in these critical areas through increased access to care.
It’s time for the world’s nongovernmental organizations, governments and health care institutions to commit to generation-defining investments in educational, training and mentorship opportunities that enable women and girls to become health care leaders. At Operation Smile, we’ve already started. Last year, our organization — the world’s largest volunteer-based surgical nonprofit — launched a $10 million groundbreaking Women in Medicine (WIM) initiative.
This women-led initiative is central to our aim to increase access to quality care for 1 million patients with cleft conditions and other essential and emergency surgical conditions, thereby improving their quality of life and livelihood. This initiative not only increased access to patient care but also created leadership and career development opportunities for women in medicine.
Having women in leadership positions is essential to informing health care strategies, decreasing gender data biases and cultivating environments for more women to rise. Recent studies have also found that having women doctors leads to better patient outcomes. However, despite these findings, in many of the countries where we work, there are still many gender biases against women in medicine, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. According to a report from Women in Global Health, only 1 of the 13 major global health organizations committed to The Global Action Plan (GAP) for Healthy Lives and Well-being for All is headed by a woman from a low-income country.
These problems are not insurmountable. The four countries in which we are piloting our Women in Medicine initiative — Morocco, Peru, Malawi, and the Philippines — point the way forward. Each country has a high level of volunteerism in medicine among women. Each already has a strong foundation of women’s leadership in health care, providing mentorship to inspire and engage others. And each has drawn meaningful investment from civil society and NGO partners.
Nurturing women leaders in medicine is a transformative investment: There is an enormous backlog of children needing care to grow into thriving members of their communities. We can’t meet this need without more women in the health care arena. By empowering women in medicine at the local and regional levels, we are building health care infrastructure in underserved areas where the need is great — a lasting impact that will ripple across the health care landscape.
This summer, as Operation Smile joins thousands of advocates, changemakers and innovators in Kigali, Rwanda for the Women Deliver conference, we call on governments, NGOs, and corporations to implement sustainable solutions on gender equality. We must commit to empowering women as full and equal partners in health care decisions and strategies, investing in educational and training opportunities for girls, and making 2023 the turning point in gender equality and global health.
Kathy Magee is the Co-Founder and President of Operation Smile. Dr. Priyanka Naidu is a Global Medical Advisor for Operation Smile.