Women have always played a vital leadership role in their communities as traditional healers, keepers of medicinal recipes, carers of the sick and birth attendants. In many traditional societies, they still do. But when medicine formalised, women had to fight their way, and that partly explains why, although women are 70% of health and social care workers, they are clustered into lower status, low paid roles today.
This year’s Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Day was the first since the landmark September 2019 United Nations High-Level Meeting on UHC when Heads of State and Government made strong commitments to deliver UHC. And one of the most important promises made was to address the gender inequities in the health and social workforce that disadvantage women and limit their advance into leadership. Heads of State and Government agreed unanimously that this has to change. And it has to change for three critical reasons:
First, we have a moral duty to look after the people who look after us when we are at our most vulnerable. It is a reasonable social contract that, in return for what they do for us, female health workers should have decent working conditions where they can focus on their work without fear of violence and harassment. And it is their right to receive equal pay and indeed, to be paid for the work they do. Health systems cannot be healthy resting on the fragile and inequitable foundation of unpaid work by women and girls. Recognising and paying women fairly for all the work they do in health and social care will result in stronger health systems for us all.
Second, 18 million new health and social care jobs, primarily in low- and middle-income countries, must be created to deliver UHC. And that is in the context of a wider predicted demand of 40 million health workers by 2030. It would be a tragedy to have got the commitment to UHC at the highest political level and to fail to realise it because we do not have health workers to deliver care. Women are studying medicine and entering health occupations in more significant numbers than ever before in most countries, and that trend seems set to continue. Women will fill the majority of health worker jobs and deliver UHC if we enable them to do so.
Finally, Delivered by Women, Led by Men reality, must change to achieve UHC. With men holding 75% of senior roles in global health, health systems are not drawing from the total talent pool. Our health outcomes are poorer because we are losing the perspectives of the women who run health systems, from both design and delivery. If UHC is to keep the promise of reaching everyone, we need diverse perspectives and the diverse leadership to reflect the populations we serve. We need women to lead health systems and have an equal voice in shaping them.
Source: World Health Organisation