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Five Questions With…Michele Barry

10 March 2020


Following International Women’s Day (IWD) we caught up with Dr Michele Barry, Founder of WomenLift Health, to discuss the barriers to women’s participation in global health leadership, the importance of IWD for the global health community and what more can be done to increase the pace of change to make global health more gender equal.

As the founder of WomenLift Health, why do you think it is important to have women leaders in global health and how is your organisation contributing to this?

Women’s leadership in health isn’t just an issue of equity, it is a missing link that threatens health and wellbeing around the world. The complexity of the health landscape demands that we fully tap the world’s leadership talent. Women bring critical insights and experiences as health care users, the primary health decision makers for their families and the majority of frontline health workers.

Achieving today’s complex global health goals requires greater and more diverse leadership talent across sectors and countries. Women are an untapped talent pool, representing 70 percent of the health workforce but only 25 percent of executive positions and five percent of CEO-level positions.

WomenLift Health will work with partners around the world to accelerate the advancement of talented women into senior leadership by investing in mid-career women and influencing the environments in which they live and work. WomenLift Health is about action – action taken by women, men, organizations and societal leaders that, together, add-up not only to active sponsorship of women into global health leadership positions but also to catalytic transformative change in the workplace.

There is no shortage of smart, educated and talented women working in global health but they often get blocked in the pipeline leading to powerful positions that influence policy. These women bring a different perspective than men, and their perspective is critical if we are going to improve health outcomes around the world. WomenLift Health intends to change the paradigm.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges by women who wish to work in health and what can be done to overcome them?

In 2017, we launched the Women Leaders in Global Health Conferences at Stanford. We surveyed women working in global health around the world to find out what they saw as challenges to their career paths. And from women in different countries and at various stages in their careers, we heard a similar set of challenges.

A majority of women told us that they struggle to balance their work life with their home life. One young woman encapsulated what many others were thinking. “I feel a lot of pressure to choose—either to have a family and remain in a low-level role forever or decide not to have a family and pursue leadership positions,” she said.

We also heard from many that the system and the culture were biased against women—subconscious bias as well as overt gender discrimination were described. Sexual harassment cannot be ignored in the health workplace and needs to be called out but often women were afraid of recrimination when surveyed.

Finally, as we surveyed women around the world, we found there was a hunger for more mentorship from women who have been able to ascend to leadership roles.

With WomenLift Health, we are working to reduce and remove all these challenges from women’s paths. We’ve created the Leadership Journey with executive coaching, and matched senior mentors to provide an opportunity for women leaders to deepen their leadership skills and confidence, increase their visibility and engage in a journey that is designed for working women. Ultimately, we will surround them with a lifelong network of women leaders, mentors and allies, who will be available for their entire careers.

What is the significance of International Women’s Day for the global health community?

We are working to enable gender parity in global health. And we believe WomenLift Health will help force a gender equal world, celebrate women’s achievement, and call out inequality. And on International Women’s Day, we celebrate other women all over the world who are also working to assist women in achieving the positions of power for making informed decisions about their own and their community’s health.

How can we increase the pace of change to make global health more gender equal?

Ultimately, we need to change the workplace for women in global health. We need to help the women acquire more skills and confidence while also transforming the organizations where they work, no matter where they work. With WomenLift Health, we are working for transformational change in the public and private sectors, and in academic institutions, which is where so many careers are started. If there is gender imbalance or discrimination in the institutions that train our future leaders, clinicians and researchers, that imbalance or discrimination will have lasting impact on women’s careers.

To catalyze change, WomenLift Health will implement a portfolio of interventions that reinforce transformative change and that ripple out to reach an increasing number of women and men. We will not change the paradigm without engaging men on this journey.

We will sponsor top performing women leaders for continued learning and advancement and offer a culturally and contextually appropriate Leadership Journey for women in the middle of their careers.

We have brought together a global advisory board of powerful women and men who have international networks. With those networks, we can leverage strong national and regional partnerships to deliver tailored programs.

And of course, as we work on multiple fronts, we will continue to hold the Women Leaders in Global Health Conferences at a new location every year so that men and women can come together to learn, share and explore. But the conferences will no longer be stand-alone events. To keep this growing and vibrant community together during the months between conferences, we are building a digital platform to amplify evidence, highlight best practices, support women leaders to network and provide a place for members of this community to tell their stories and turn to each other for guidance and support.

We strongly believe that WomenLift Health will accelerate the pace of change and make global health more gender equal.

What has been the highlight of your career so far and what are your aspirations for the future?

Mentorship of women has been the highlight of my career—and hopefully a legacy. I was honored to win the Elizabeth Blackburn medal from The American Medical Women’s Association for mentorship of women pursuing careers in medicine in the US. I started my career working in refugee health to make sure that even the most vulnerable populations had access to high quality health care. I then started working in Africa and other LMICs to build capacity and partner to improve health. Improving care for the underserved both domestically and overseas has been my passion guiding my moral compass. As I took on more leadership roles pursuing this endeavor, I found myself often the only woman at the table. It happened so often, where I was the only woman in the room for high-level global health meetings or on panels at conferences, I came to see that women in global health are an underserved population. Thus, started the idea of WomenLift Health.

Founding WomenLift Health is the apogee of my career. I’ve always worked at the intersection of medicine and politics and this initiative is not only political but also personal for me as I have brought two daughters into this world and have a new granddaughter.

Working to lift women into positions of leadership – both domestically and internationally—is an extension of work I’ve always done. It is a political endeavor and it will improve the field of medicine and the way medicine is practiced around the world. And it will change the future for my daughters and their daughters.

This post was written by:

Michele Barry - Founder, WomenLift Health


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