In health care worldwide, women make up 75 percent of the work force but hold less than 25 percent of leadership positions. Ministers of health and corporate executives – largely male – determine which research projects are funded, which services are provided, and how the workforce is deployed. In health care, the lack of diversity at the top often means the concerns of women and children are overlooked.

Michele Barry, a professor of medicine and director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, launched the Women Leaders in Health conference to address the discrepancy. More than 400 women from 79 countries attended the first conference, held at Stanford in 2017. This year, more than 900 people attended the event at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Thousands more watched the livestream.

Conference-goers reflected on their experiences and the value of community.


Adeline Boatin

"I’m an ob-gyn and both a clinician and a researcher at Harvard University. Sometimes you feel very isolated in the work that you’re doing in global health. Even though there are a lot of people doing it, I’m the only woman in my department and the only woman of color and the only one from Ghana, from the global south. You don’t see a lot of people in positions of leadership in that setting. So being able to interact with and gain guidance and learn in this setting, that’s why I’m here. It’s helpful to see people and be able to meet them and to discuss questions that have come up." —Adeline Boatin, MD, MPH, instructor of obstetrics and reproductive biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Michele Barry

"When we held the first conference, we did a day on skills building in leadership and we had room for 90 people. Over 200 people applied. There was a real call for action. And before our conference ended, Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine spontaneously stood up and said, “London will run it next year.” Agnes Binagwaho, the former minister of health in Rwanda, said, “We’ll run it in Rwanda the year after that.” And Patty Garcia, former minister of health from Peru, said, “In Peru the year after that.” There was a real momentum and this conference became a game-changer for women in global health. I still get emails maybe every week from women who have had their lives changed by that conference. And going forward, we will add more support and training between conferences. Ten years from now, I hope to have trained 5,000 mid-career women to positions of leadership in NGOs, academia and the private sector." —Michele Barry, senior associate dean for Global Health at Stanford

Rose Clarke Nanyonga

"When I came to the conference last year, it really felt like an intervention for me because it suddenly plugged me back into a network of like-minded people. It was an opportunity to sit down with a lot of women who were working in the global context and the tone of the conference was about connecting, bringing other women to the table, fostering ways in which we could support each other and break some structural barriers, cultural barriers. It was about ways in which we could reach women who are sort of lost to the formal sector. And I felt like I was that woman. I was in leadership. I was so isolated. I didn’t have the connections that I wanted to have. Or the encouragement that I desperately needed. That was my big takeaway from the first conference: that if I didn’t know what I was doing, I had a network of people I could connect with and speak to. This conference is not so much an intervention for me but an affirmation, a re-energizing time for me. I’ve been a lot more intentional in conversations with people because I’m beginning to think about implementation, what is the next stage for this conversation and this dialog. And how would you translate it into action where we live." —Rose Clarke Nanyonga, vice chancellor, Clarke University, Kampala, Uganda

Vanessa Kerry

"When we look at the time of flux that we’re in, the intense debates that we’re having around the globe, when we are being challenged by certain types of leadership, this group of people who have a common commitment to women’s well-being and to thinking through how to create a community of leaders who are committed to global well-being and prosperity, is a really important group and voice to be carried forward. There’s an excitement at this conference, an underlying energy and a unified sense of purpose. There’s a real inspiration to action and a call to action, that you don’t often get at academic conferences that are focused only on sharing knowledge and information. There is a palpable desire to take that evidence, take that knowledge and springboard it forward into actual change." —Vanessa Kerry, founder and CEO of Seed Global Health and director of the Program in Global Health in Global Public Policy and Social Change, Harvard Medical School

Kent Buse

"It’s important that we have a discussion about women leaders in global health so I’m pleased to be here. And I’m disappointed that there are not more men. I think there are 900 people at the conference and I’d be surprised if there are 50 men. Men have an important role to play. We have a lot of privilege. We occupy a lot of spaces of authority. If you look at who’s running global health, it’s men. Men have the power. Men have the power to change the system so men have a special responsibility to support women’s leadership and to support gender equality. There is a role for men. It doesn’t seem to be very well-defined. But there’s certainly not enough men stepping up to the challenge." —Kent Buse, MSc, PhD, co-director of Global Health 50/50 and senior adviser to the executive director of UNAIDS

Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija

"I’m the only child of a man from a patriarchal society who was told that you need to go find yourself another wife so you can have boy children. My dad would look at me and say, ‘This child is going to be more than 10 men.’ That very much framed my mindset in terms of leadership at an early age. I went to boarding school in England and I entered this school as the only person of color. My first few months were truly horrendous. I was lonely. I was freezing cold. At the end of seven years, I got called into the principal’s office and she said to me in her rather aristocratic voice, “One has decided that you shall be the next head girl.” I looked at her in absolute shock and horror and said, “You’ve got to be joking.” She said, “One thinks that you have a certain aristocratic air about you.” So what you’re saying is I’m snooty? And that made me understand that leadership is about perception. It is, in my view, subject to interpretation and largely contextual. As one who deals and coordinates the multi-sectoral effects of one of the world’s largest and most complex humanitarian crises in Nigeria, I can tell you that any such conflict is not going to end well. All of what we’re talking about in terms of access to quality health care will be thrown out of order if we don’t first get to grips with the challenge we have today, which is global leadership." —Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, chief humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria

Nadia Rimi

"Being a woman in Bangladesh and taking a leadership position is quite challenging. I have been working in International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, more than 12 years. I joined at the initial entry level and have been growing my career. We were doing public health and there are a lot of gender dimensions to our career, how we go in the work environment and the challenges that we face. As an anthropologist, I develop behavior change interventions to reduce risk for zoonotic transmission. We wanted to know what are the gender dimensions to dealing with emergency situations so I really was interested in the session that talked about emergency and outbreaks." —Nadia Rimi, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh

Elizabeth Eves

"I used to volunteer with Girl Guides in the U.K., which is like the Girl Scouts in the U.S., from about the age of 12. One of the projects I did as a young leader was in rural Bangladesh with groups of women in three rural regions. It was based around training on public health issues, like women that were running local vaccination centers, women that were offering peer support to victims of domestic violence, and women that had had traumatic childbirth. It really awakened a part of me that I hadn’t discovered before then and now I feel that global health is almost like a yearning, it’s something that I wouldn’t be able to turn off in myself if I tried. It feels almost like I am trying to keep up with something that has momentum of its own." —Elizabeth Eves, student of health policy at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an oncology nurse

Kathy States Burke

"Global health needs more and better leaders. It’s a limiting factor. And the best way to develop leaders is to invest in women. They make up the vast majority of the field, and yet they are relatively untapped in senior leadership levels. Stanford launched the Women Leaders in Global Health conference in 2017, and with the second conference in London in 2018, we’ve seen the momentum build. This has become a movement: Sisterhood meets capacity-building! It’s important to recognize, however, that the old leadership models won’t work. We need to think about how women lead differently and develop a model that is more collaborative and inclusive, that empowers people and leads to greater health and well-being." —Kathy States Burke, deputy director, Stanford Global Health

Shereen Bhan

"I want women and children to not only survive, but thrive, and I’m devoting my career to make that happen. I firmly believe that women leaders in global health have the untapped power to make this desire a reality. Leadership is typically taught with emphasis on an individual’s personal enhancement and advancement. The style tends to be male-oriented and the approach to making change is often incremental. We're hoping to reimagine leadership for the 21st century in a way that values diversity, is inclusive, values the duality and complementarity of feminine and masculine traits, promotes collaboration and co-creation, and is transformational rather than incremental. Beyond enhancing individual leadership skills, we want to promote a system in which all participants are partners and it’s not a one-sided flow of knowledge and information from the global north to the global south. We hope to create a truly equitable and transparent network of women leaders which optimizes knowledge-sharing and transfer and provides connectivity, visibility and credibility to Women in Global Health." —Shereen Bhan, content director, Women Leaders in Global Health Initiative

Meredith Miller Vostrejs

"To achieve better health outcomes for all we need diverse voices informing global health decision-making. Women are the largest caregivers yet bear the disproportionate burden of disease; it is critical they are present at the highest levels of leadership to ensure people’s differing lived realities are taken into account. I was totally inspired by the dynamic women from around the world at the WLGH conferences. I am confident that if we harness all their amazing energy and passion we can change this world! Like our midterm elections in the U.S., elevating women into positions of power gives us hope that people who can effect change represent and advocate for women of all backgrounds in pursuit of social justice." —Meredith Miller Vostrejs, program director, Women Leaders in Global Health Initiative