As a woman, I am not afraid to identify as a feminist. A few months ago, I talked about what feminism means to me (read here). I’ve been fighting for gender equality and challenging societal norms long before I realised it was a ‘thing’. I think it’s vital for there to be a world where all genders have equal opportunity.
In 2014, the UN founded the HeForShe movement – a solidarity movement encouraging men and boys to support gender equality. It’s been refreshing to see more men embracing this movement. My dear friend Dr. Obinna Nnewuihe shares his thoughts on the importance of gender equality and why we should all be feminists.
The first thought that comes to the minds of many when you say you stand with women, believe in feminism and question the system that perpetuates an unfair playing ground for women is ‘really??’
Your very motive is immediately thrown into question. For instance, ‘are you single?’ – in which case, this ‘overly’ supportive stance may immediately be classed as a ‘pick me’ syndrome seen daily on that famous bird app.
If ‘pick me’ isn’t proposed, claims of being ‘woke’ are then made. Within this Pandora’s box that constitutes what it is to be woke, questions about atheism, marijuana and veganism may be tossed in. ‘You’re just following a fad’, or ‘dancing to a tune,’ they would claim; a tune often played by ‘children of anger’ who are believed to be almost always female.
But beyond the theorising and guess work, what does it mean to believe in creating a more just world that allows women to not just survive but also thrive? Seeing as this is an issue about people, I would indeed be taking it personal.
Working in health policy in the middle of a pandemic caused by a never before seen virus in a global economy that is now highly polarised, you can only imagine what it is like to provide any form of government advisory. No two days are the same; both the problem and possible solutions are always changing. However, through all of this global chaos, I’ve had the joy of sharing ideas, analysis, fears and jokes with 2 of the best global minds in public health, who are both female and strikingly brilliant. While we catch up daily on the state of the world and propose different public health theories and solutions to the current crisis, I sometimes think about the state of female leadership in global health.
Last year, UCL London published the Global Health 50/50 report – an analysis of leadership in Global Health, and the findings leave little to admire for women. Looking at 200 organisations in health and health policy the world over, a 70-80-90 ‘glass ceiling’ was realised. More than 70% of global health leaders are men, with over 80% from high income countries and more than 90% educated in high income countries. While women make up more than 70% of the global workforce in health and social care, and the public health burden lies disproportionately in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC), women from LMIC only make up 5% of global health leadership.
With this current gender distribution of senior leadership, it would take at least 50 years for women to achieve parity. Personalising our conversation again, it could very much mean that in my lifetime, my extremely brilliant friends might never reach heights in Global Health that I might reach, for no other reason besides being female. When you pause to reflect, you realise that this in itself is tragic.
Sadly, this same phenomenon of limitations and imposed glass ceilings for women is replicated across virtually all industries. Still keeping a focus on the policy where I’m domiciled, we see that at entry level professional roles in the UN system, there is near parity between male/female employees. However, as we go further up the ladder (during which time most women would have families and assume greater responsibility for a home), we see a tapering off of women at higher levels. Over the past few years, there has been a deliberate attempt by the UN to fix this gaping hole by prioritising (and monitoring) female applications; however, this still falls short.
This begs the obvious question: why do women, born just as capable and trained just as excellently as men, seem to not achieve the heights they can possibly reach? What keeps this system in play and how can we work to dismantle the barriers that keep us all lower than we could be as people?
Staying on raising a home, we realise that besides carrying a baby and breastfeeding, there is no other care a woman might offer a child that a man cannot. Thus, child care should not place limitations on either party. A normalisation of providing and distributing care between partners should constitute part of our recovery towards a new normal. An understanding that paternity leave is nothing to be ashamed of or even questioned by employers creates ample room for men to work in sync with their partners and enable even quicker recovery.
Regarding employers, an understanding of pregnancy and maternity leave as an investment in society and not just a cost to be borne (and hence tacitly avoided by not employing women) is also crucial as we seek to break down glass ceilings.
A proper valuation of the work done at home (unpaid home labour) and how this may be better structured and resourced without negatively impacting the ability of women to thrive professionally requires a more honest evaluation.
Gender pay disparity, which more often results in women being paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same job, has no place in 2020! As more organisations press forward with results-based management systems of working, we must prioritise outcomes over bias.
As much as we are nostalgic about what our world looked like last December and cannot wait to have our lives back, we should also remember that the pre-COVID world was nowhere near a perfect one. In our march towards a new future, we must endeavour not to waste this crisis. This pandemic offers us the time and ability to question age old assumptions, practices and norms.
A pre-COVID world where women have to wait more than 50 years to achieve parity in leadership of a sector where they are demographically the majority must be confined to the relics of history. Understanding the barriers that produce an unjust distribution of resources and opportunities must also be met by a sustained drive to dismantle the incentives and rewards that keep us where we are.
As we now build what will become our new reality, we must not waste this crisis. We should all be feminists.
Nnewuihe Obinna is a physician in the fields of medicine, economics and public health. He currently works in development practice, focusing on health policy in the Economic, Youth and Sustainable Development Directorate of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. Prior to this, he has held diverse roles in healthcare spanning academic research, clinical care delivery and private health insurance.