In honour of International Women’s Day 2018, we are sharing highlights throughout March, written by and about inspirational female academics. In this blogpost, we share the first part of a paper written by Judith A Whitworth for Global Health, Epidemiology and Genomics, an open access journal. The paper is part of the Women in Global Health collection.

Women and global health: a personal view
J. A. Whitworth, Emeritus Professor Australian National University

Women have been recognised as playing a central role in global health over millennia. Hygieia in both Greek and Roman mythology was the goddess of good health, cleanliness and sanitation, and her sisters Panacea, Acesco and Laso were goddesses of remedy, healing and recuperation, respectively. Florence Nightingale became a cult figure during the Crimean War and was a key figure in social reforms designed to improve health care across all levels of society.
She is credited as the founder of modern nursing. More recently, a few women have made it to the top in global health, e.g. at international level Gro Harlem Bruntland and then Margaret Chan as Directors General of WHO, and at national level Dame Sally Davies as Chief Medical Officer of the UK (I was the Australian equivalent in the late nineties).
The problem
Despite their undoubted skills and expertise, women remain substantially underrepresented in leadership positions in global health. In Australia, and indeed most, women constitute more than half of health professionals, and biomedical scientists but are greatly underrepresented in senior roles. Why?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that this is part of a much more general phenomenon. This is not a problem confined to global health. Underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is ubiquitous. Women are few and far between as heads of state, as parliamentarians, as CEOs in both private and public sectors and in leadership roles generally.
And by and large the root causes are the same.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, speaking on why we have too few women leaders pointed out that the choices around career are harder for women. She quoted data indicating that male married senior managers were twice as likely as female counterparts to have children. Thus for many women, career choices may limit lifestyle, most importantly the decision to have a family. Not all women can have it all. Men rarely are confronted with this often devastating choice. In all studies that have examined the question working women do more of the housework and more of the child care than their working male partners, and they are the ones expected to cope in a domestic emergency.
Women who do opt to try to combine career and family often have to deal with a degree of social opprobrium and with guilt. The paucity of appropriate child care facilities reinforces the problem.

Read the paper in full here.

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