It was incredibly comforting to listen to the inspiring #BuildBackEqual webinar hosted by IAPB with experts on gender issues in health care Jennifer Gersbeck, Sumrana Yasmin, and Hannah Barham-Brown. Comforting because I felt seen as a working mother with two small children who has been juggling the challenges faced by women around the world, particularly how to navigate keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe during a global pandemic. As a woman working in the global health sector, I also felt comforted to hear what I know to be true—that women need to be at the table when decisions are being made regarding COVID responses, public policy, and strategies.
Jennifer eloquently highlighted the key takeaway from a recent WHO report entitled “Delivered by Women, Led by Men: A Gender and Equity Analysis of the Global Health and Social Workforce”. The report found that “health systems will be stronger when the women who deliver them have an equal say in the design of national health plans, policies and systems”.
Women doing the work need to be at the table when decisions are made and issues discussed. And yet, statistics shared by the speakers showed that the people regarded as experts are primarily older white men. Women need to be leading conversations. Their voices need to be heard and listened to as well and acknowledged. Hannah also discusses the importance of intersectionality (coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw)—the way that different factors such as race, class, gender, and other identities combine to affect lived experiences differently—is regarded in such spaces. It is not enough to ensure that women have a seat, but that such spaces and seats should be made up of a range of identities that allow a more collaborative discussion to commence.
#BuildBackEqual highlighted the unique opportunity that COVID has presented the world to be intentional and inclusive when responding and re-building our systems. In the eye health world, this means breaking down silos and working with other sectors to understand lessons learned and integrate them into our systems and our work moving forward. It means choosing to integrate gender proactively and intentionally. It means listening to the voices of women who are doing the work and ensuring that there is access to leadership opportunities at every level within our organisations, systems, and structures.
This work is not done overnight. It does not produce easy or quick wins. Building back better takes commitment and dedication. It means taking a hard look in the mirror, recognising that we still have a long way to go, and digging into why. It requires commitment and accountability, starting at the highest level. Sumrana mentioned that building back better requires creative collaboration; it requires a new way of doing things. Are we in the eye health world ready to collaborate? Are we ready to do things differently? Leaders have an especially vital role to play as we forge a new way.
Nothing seems more motivating to me than the inspirational stories of people overcoming the most impossible obstacles. We see this often in the experiences of frontline health workers and caregivers, who are often women, doing everything they can to care for those in need despite the obstacles they face. Are we looking to them for insight and to their stories for inspiration? Do they have a seat at our decision-making tables? If not, we need to do better.
Gender equity is not a women’s issue — it is everyone’s issue. The eye health disparities women and girls face are not unrelated to the challenges that female health care professionals and caregivers face. Continued unequal health outcomes and structural gender inequity will persist if women’s perspectives aren’t included more intentionally in leadership, planning, policymaking, and programming. Supporting and giving women at all levels access to decision-making opportunities works to ensure everyone is included. It is time to build back equal because we all deserve better.