Last month I presented two virtual sessions at the Harvard Leadership program for women in the health professions. This is a sold-out event, mainly because of the hard work of Dr. Julie Silver and her team. I have been involved for several years and every year I have found the engagement of the audience increasing.
Women at the workshop repeatedly voiced their willingness to lead and rectify some of the most recalcitrant inequities, such as the gendered pay gap. However, not much has changed in the decades since women have entered healthcare professions in ever increasing numbers. More than 70% of the global health workforce is female and yet women hold only 25% of the leadership roles in health. Female health workers earn 28% less than their male counterparts. This gap is higher than the overall global estimate of the gender pay gap, which is 22%.
COVID has made the situation worse for women in healthcare. Since the appearance of COVID, many of the participants at the workshop have had to step up and assume leadership positions, such as setting up and managing new COVID facilities without any additional remuneration nor ongoing career pathways. Without any increase in organizational recognition nor remuneration, it is no wonder that women are leaving the workforce in droves.
The lack of representation in agenda setting and decision-making matters because women face extra burdens in pandemics. For example, we are more likely to be involved in sustained patient care and therefore at higher risk of exposure to infection, less likely to capitalize on job opportunities due to school closures and increased unpaid family care. It is estimated that women are more likely to be responsible for nearly 1.5 billion children who are out of school. In addition, women make up 57 to 81 percent of caretakers to the elderly.
Inclusion of women in decision-making advances stability and security, community trust and financial accountability. However, internalized conflicts hold back many women who try to redress the inequities. The qualities of nurturing and maintaining harmony, which are thought to be innate in women, but are really learned and rewarded behaviors, keep women feeling valued in the middle management space. So, even when we are given the opportunity, we resile from activities associated with the male persona, such as embracing competitive situations at work and displaying raw ambition.
We think our work will be recognized without us having to promote ourselves, and we think opportunities will come our way without asking. Reticence usually keeps us overworked, underpaid and in dead-end jobs. We become dissatisfied with our careers and the waste of our intellect, talent, and energy.
More than disaster management is required. There is a stronger way forward. It is about realizing where we should be heading, not where we have been. I call it robustness. We can energize our future, not just euthanize our past. Supporting each other is essential – whether it be in helping each other understand organizational structures and how to progress through them, providing references that highlight leadership capabilities or mentoring those brave women who step forward.