Closing the Gender Gap in Global Health & Science

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an UN-recognised day aiming to spotlight the acute global shortage of female scientists, and advance gender equity in this field  to address major global health challenges and achieve global SDGs. Globally, just 30% of the world’s researchers are women, a figure perpetuated by the numerous barriers to female success in this field; those presented within inequitable education and research grant  systems, the barriers to career advancement, and existing social and cultural expectations of women as solely mothers and caregivers, to name a few. In many low-resourced countries, this underrepresentation is more severe, with women accounting for just 8% of researchers in Ethiopia, 10% in Togo, and just 5.8% in Guinea.  

The existing gender gap and disparities in science have been further exacerbated by COVID-19. Women scientists and researchers, particularly those at early-career stages, have been severely impacted since the pandemic’s inception, with increased childcare responsibilities during lockdowns compromising time devoted to research for some women (a Nature study shows this to be a decline of 24%). One of many lessons that COVID-19 has taught is the for new policies, initiatives and mechanisms to support women and girls in science. 

Female researchers and scientists have served as cornerstones to global COVID-19 response efforts, from advancing the knowledge on the virus to developing techniques for testing. More recently, the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine development, taking place at lightning speeds globally, has been spearheaded by women. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a research fellow and NIH scientific lead, has led the charge on the Moderna’s vaccine, and two Oxford University scientists,  Prof. Teresa Lambe, and Prof. Sarah Gilbert have been globally lauded for their work designing the Oxford vaccine in partnership with AstraZeneca. They have made their motivations clear; their work is a fight against the virus, not a fight against other vaccine developers, and their extraordinary efforts will go on to provide high level protection from COVID-19 for populations globally, and hope for the pandemic’s end. 

UGHE recognizes the demand for, and value in having more women scientists, and addresses this through equity-driven education paired with an ambitious gender equity agenda. Its six-and-a-half year MBBS/MGHD degree program deliberately recruits a 70% female cohort, a framework of positive discrimination that proactively addresses existing gender disparities in science. UGHE’s Center for Gender Equity, furthers this commitment to equity by integrating gender across academics, research, organizational structure and community engagement, and supports gender equitable research grant funding. Additionally, tuition fees at UGHE have been replaced with needs-based financial support for all students, to ensure that financial capacity is not a barrier to medical education.

All UGHE programming is designed to build confidence in students to challenge their own unconscious and conscious bias whether gender, racial, cultural, to question the status quo, and, critically, to advocate for female representation in global health leadership, essential in all disciplines, but especially those that still remain heavily male-dominated. Mentorship opportunities, through the Center for Gender Equity’s Mentorship program, and embedded within all curricula, is designed to. 

To mark the day, we’ve asked a selection of our students – Bilquees Idrees, Dr. Semay Desta Shamebo, and Cara Nkurunziza Eduige  – to share their personal reflections on what it means to be a woman in science today, and what it will mean for the future.

Cara Nkurunziza Eduige, MBBS’26 (Rwanda)

Since I was a little child, I dreamt of becoming a doctor – saving people’s lives was a passion of mine. My family always referred to me as ‘their little doctor’ because every time someone got sick, I was there to help in my own way. When my aunt was diagnosed with cervical cancer, I used to massage her legs in the hospital thinking it was a problem with the arteries. She died sometime later, and I was left thinking that if I became a doctor, I could actually do something to support. There are so many people like my aunt, so many people suffering with no access to quality health care. Saving a life means more than saving people; it means supporting the wellbeing of a whole family, or even communities that depend on them. 

This is the reason I joined UGHE, to serve the vulnerable people around the world, but also to change the status of women in science and global health leadership positions. Last year I attended a UGHE lecture on gender balance and social justice. It taught us how women are severely underrepresented in research and science. It’s made me realise that, after finishing my degree, my role must extend to encouraging other women to take a similar career path, to  break the social norm. To be a woman in science is to be empowered. You have been given a stage to advance discovery, and innovation in health- and with the right training you have the power to use it. 

There are a lot of women like me, and I feel empowered to share my experiences with younger girls to encourage them to defeat gender biases, grow as female sciences themselves and, in time, contribute to the development of countries and globally. Some countries still do not give value to what a woman is or what she can offer, which needs to change before women can actually climb into health leadership roles.

The sciences, research – these fields are not just reserved for boys. When solely men contribute to global research, it means the final product won’t necessarily address women’s needs and the challenges they face. Without women, research is simply not complete – global research is crying out for the contributions of women. Historically, we as women have had our wings clipped and we cannot fly, and if we do not challenge stereotypes and social norms, and create a platform for other young women and girls to have a voice and illicit change, we don’t have a hope for advancement in the future. 

Dr. Semay Desta Shamebo, MGHD ‘21, (Ethiopia)

I had the opportunity to work in a rural community in Ethiopia. Before this, I didn’t understand how rural Ethiopia could be. They were missing basic things that the capital city had. As a Quality Improvement Officer at the hospital at the time, I saw so many gaps in the hospital system, but didn’t have the knowledge base to be able to make meaningful changes. 

I started developing a passion for focusing on marginalized groups. I also started to question why we are waiting for someone to tell us to act? I want to bring this incentive to act back to my country. Equity is a delicate thing in Ethiopia, so I wanted to focus on this, and how this applies from a global perspective too. For me, and for my fellow students at UGHE, health needs go beyond the biomedical aspects and that, in order to fix something you need to get to the root problem.

For me, just being a woman in science means that I’ve overcome the stereotypical barriers that most women face. I was raised by a single mother and she told me stories of how in her day everything was granted to men and men only. I myself experienced gender bias at the hospital I worked at. I noticed how they treated women like me, referring to us as nurses, and asking us to seek advice from the doctors. The fact that I actually became a doctor means that I overcame these assumptions about what the preconditioned role of women should be. It means I am not held back by social pressures and perceptions, only by the limitations we put on ourselves. 

Because of social constructs, women tend to be the ones rearing children, and looking after the sick. As a result, we are disproportionately exposed to health issues like communicable diseases, as well mental health issues. And we offer a new perspective and strong intuition because of this. Using this knowledge we can contribute to science and research, traditionally a male dominated field. Women bring so much to the table, but have no channels to implement it. In Ethiopia the man is the breadwinner – we are told to let him do this and that. Role models are often men, but my role model is my mother. She taught me to challenge the status quo. 

What I would tell the future generation? I have younger cousins who have already asked me this question. I say to them; don’t limit yourself. Society will push pressure on you, but the only person that can really prevent you from living your dream is yourself. Good role models can help you maintain this drive. The other critical thing to remember is that you can challenge anything – if you’re wrong you learn from your mistakes. As a woman you have an amazing opportunity to challenge everything – even the ground you’re standing on.

Bilquees Idrees, MGHD’21 (Pakistan)

As a woman working in the fields of science and health, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to break the traditional roles for, and biases on, women. It has empowered me to spark change, to shift mindsets for what is possible and acceptable for women. This opportunity has created an enabling environment for me, paving the way for the next generation of women to follow suit, especially those in my home country Pakistan. 

During my previous job as an Outreach Coordinator in Pakistan, I worked with the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, especially women. The women in these communities are among the most deprived and vulnerable in Pakistan, with limited mobility, very poor economic status, and little or no access to health and education facilities. It has always been my dream to help these women improve the quality of their lives, their access to health and education facilities, as well as contribute to reducing gender-based violence, which many suffer on a daily basis. 

Supporting me in this mission, the MGHD degree is already broadening my knowledge of global health, helping me become a more accomplished social worker with a better understanding of social problems and their solutions. I’ve enjoyed the fact that my fellow students and faculty members come from so many different parts of the world, all contributing to different humanitarian issues and helping vulnerable and marginalized communities in overcoming damaging social and cultural norms. It supports me in not only learning best practices, but also advocating for how these best practices could be adopted and tailored to our own contexts, to enhance access to quality healthcare for marginalized in far-flung areas of Pakistan.

My message for girls and women is not to be restricted by what society has conditioned for you. For me, pursuing further study has given me the opportunity to develop myself to create more opportunities for girls everywhere.