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Walking the Path to Gender Equality, Together

By guest contributors Shereen Bhan, Shagun Sabarwal, and Norah Obudho

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that no one person’s well-being is secured until everyone’s is secured. In times of the pandemic and beyond, inclusive, and diverse leadership – at all levels – is critical. The reality is that men hold majority of leadership positions in health around the globe and change will not happen unless men use their power to affect this change. Social structures and leadership positions continue to be dominated by those in positions of power and privilege and the gender divide is often seen as a zero-sum game.[1]  Despite men comprising only 30% of the health work force, they fill 75% of senior leadership positions and a whopping 95% of CEO or head of agency positions. Both men and women stand to gain when they lead collaboratively and simultaneously. A solidarity-driven approach can move us closer to a more gender-equal world.

It is imperative that men have some skin in the game as we fight together for gender equality. Many male allies (men who associate with, cooperate with, and support women[2]) have arrived at the place of allyship because they got a taste of the deep injustice and unfairness that women often experience. They valued the expertise of a female mentee, partner, collaborator, spouse, daughter, friend and had to witness them being deprived of rightfully deserved credit, opportunity, and equity. It filled them with the same distress that women experience. They stepped into the shoes of those women, albeit briefly, and it was enlightening. Dr Kati Kariko describes her journey laying the foundation for mRNA vaccines and how her collaborator Dr. David Langer “saved” her by advocating for her. He argues that it was she who “saved” him. Their success was bound together. In his words, “There’s a tendency when scientists are looking at data to try to validate their own idea. The best scientists try to prove themselves wrong. Kate’s genius was a willingness to accept failure and keep trying, and her ability to answer questions people were not smart enough to ask.”[3]

So how do we continue to bring men and women in solidarity?  Some thoughts for male leaders as they seek out opportunities for allyship:

  • If you are a junior or mid-career male leader and you are still building and establishing your credibility, consider partnering with similarly rising women leaders to design and deliver innovative and impactful ideas together. When collaborating both of you stand to gain by bringing a diversity of lived experiences and approaches to the table. 
  • Recognize that allyship begins at home. You cannot be a supportive colleague if you are not a supportive partner, spouse, father, brother, or friend. Practicing allyship in all your spaces will deepen your empathy and ability to put yourself in the shoes of others. This practice is critical not only to gender equality but also the advancement of global health. 

If you are in a senior position, how might you set an example and create more space for rising women leaders? Following are some of the important actions from male leaders who are showing just what it means to be a male ally:  

  • Like Jeremy Farrar, who has committed to not to join any panels or committees that are not gender balanced. “Leaning out can be a very good thing.”[4]
  • Like Roger Glass, who voluntarily provides names of female colleagues for committee memberships and amplifies their powerful stories via Fogarty International Center’s Global Health Matters newsletter. “In addition to assuring women have an equal opportunity to highlight their expertise, voice their opinion, and influence research direction, we must also work harder to ensure they have the opportunities needed for career advancement so they can play a more equitable role in global health leadership.”[5]
  • Like Githinji Gitahi, actively call out men to accept that discrimination exists, consciously and intentionally decide not to act as barriers, and work together with women to fix these hurdles.[6]
  • Like Salim Abdool Karim who believes that “The struggle for gender equity is everyone’s struggle” participate in events about women’s leadership and speak up loud and clear about the importance of male allyship.[7]
  • Like K. Vijay Raghavan, who publicly calls for the need to recognize the contribution of women to and expand their inclusion in the fields of STEM.Research in STEM can be done in a way that is inclusive and free of constraints that deter the participation of women: Flexible working hours, work from home and flexible career entry and advancement structures can help greatly. Men need to ensure that they are active in ensuring these happen.”
  • Like Ravi Verma, use one’s leadership role to promote research that empowers women and girls and to remind men that they are not speaking for women, but with women.[8]

Approach your allyship with the spirit of learning and humility, actively listening and with open dialogue.[9]

Some thoughts to women leaders as they cultivate male allies. Fighting this battle alone is exhausting. Male allies are critical to moving the needle. It may seem unfair because most of us women have been hurt and denied but we also can’t afford to lump all men together. An ‘us versus them’ approach will only hurt us all. We may have to be intentional in identifying allyship potential in men who perhaps don’t even see it in themselves or those who are on the fence and help guide, motivate them through the journey to being more effective partners. The following are some suggestions to consider:

  • Find a male mentor whom you can be vulnerable with and when you find them make sure they are fully invested in your success, celebrating your accomplishments, and feeling your pain. This will take some clear stakeholder mapping, followed by a careful and considered choice. Don’t just pick someone higher up and influential, but someone who is truly listening and who fills your skills and experience gap. 
  • Find a male colleague with whom you connect, enjoy brainstorming, and sense a relationship of equals and now take the idle intellectual banter to a more productive space.  Leverage the combination of your complimentary skills to innovate and create. 
  • Try to build safe spaces that also include men and where you can share and speak about your goals, challenges, and aspirations.


We will all gain when individuals with a diverse set of identities, experience, skills, expertise, and education bind their power together, fight for each other and, together, create a gender-equal world that benefits all. Women bring unique skills and lived experience to the table, as do men. A critical next step is for men to put their skin in the game and recognize that true success lies in solidarity-based leadership.

About the authors:

Shereen Bhan is Acting North America Program and Global Leadership Development Director at WomenLift Health. Her career spans 20+ years of experience in designing and implementing training and technical assistance programs for LMICs across the globe. In her current role at WomenLift Health, she oversees the design, contextualization, and implementation of WomenLift’s signature Leadership Journey and other leadership training modalities for mid-career women in global health. She has led projects funded by World Bank, IMF, country governments, USAID and UNDP. Shereen holds an MBA in Finance from Georgia State University.

Shagun Sabarwal is the India Program and Global Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Director at WomenLift Health. Shagun comes with more than 13 years of experience in social policy and development research, focusing on improving gender equality and health in India. Over the years, Shagun has led a portfolio of projects to support governments to scale evidence-based solutions, has designed evaluation research, created capacity building programs in monitoring and evaluation, and provided technical advisory on evidence-informed policy design. Before joining WomenLift Health, Shagun was the Director of Policy, training and communication at J-PAL SA and the Director of CLEAR SA. Shagun holds a Doctorate in Public Health from Harvard University.

Norah Obudho is the East Africa Program Director at WomenLift Health. Norah comes on board with a wealth of experience in leadership, management and public health. She is a qualified medical doctor and public health specialist. Her career spans over 15 years with a genuine interest in the interface of public health and project management. She has designed, managed and led teams in various public health programs including HIV, MNCH, Sexual and Reproductive health and rights and empowerment programs. She has led projects funded by USAID, CDC, EU, GF, VLAD, HP and World Bank. Norah holds a Master’s in Public Health from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a bachelor’s degree in medicine and Surgery from Nairobi University.

Reference List

[1] Power, Privilege and Priorities: Global Health 50/50 Report, 2020. Available from:

[2] Men As Allies: Engaging Men to Advance Women in the Workplace, Bentley University, 2017. Available from:

[3] Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World from Coronavirus. The New York Times. 8 April 2021. Available from:

[4] Pai, Madhukar. Men in Global Health: Time to Lean Out. Microbiology, Springer Nature. 2022. Available from:

[5] Glass, Roger, Statement on increasing diversity in the global health workforce. NIH, Fogarty International Center. 1 July 2019. Available from:

[6] Women Leaders in Global Health Conference. [2021, 15 November]. Closing the Stem Leadership Gap in Africa [Video]. YouTube.

[7] Women Leaders in Global Health Conference. [2020, 15 October]. The Art of Leaning Out: A Conversation about Male Allyship [Video]. YouTube.

[8] Women Leaders in Global Health Conference. [2020, 15 October]. The Art of Leaning Out: A Conversation about Male Allyship [Video]. YouTube.

[9] Johnson, WB, Smith, David.  Male Allyship is About Paying Attention.  Harvard Business Review. 2021 February 10. Available from:










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