How gender bias hides itself in the global health field


A polio vaccinator administers oral drops to a child in the Dawanau district of Kano, northern Nigera, on October 28, 2013 during a polio immunization campaign.


Aminu Abubakar

WASHINGTON — On day three of the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Washington, DC, I waited for a much-needed cup of coffee behind a trio of attendees deliberating their next move.

The conference gathered 3,600 doctors and public health professionals from some 100 countries to discuss the newest developments in tropical medicine and global health. I was invited to present about global health and the media, and stayed on an extra day to attend some sessions and report.

One member of the trio suggested to his colleagues that they head across the street for breakfast, and his female colleague flipped through the schedule read aloud the title of the session she would miss that morning: “Promoting Women Leaders in Global Health.”

She looked up with a bored expression and said, “No, thank you.”

Perplexed by her nonchalance, I went to the panel. In the room were about 100 women (I also counted six men) who were anything but nonchalant about the issue. Throughout the session, presenters and audience members made compelling cases for why they think the gender disparity in the field of global health is important to discuss.

Halima Mwenesi — one of the presenters — told me in an interview that the only way to get more women leaders in global health is “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”

She added, “Talk about it. Make people aware of the problems. It’s only when you recognize the problem and name that problem that we can do something about it.”

Indeed, the panelists’ presentations demonstrated over and over again that science is a long way from achieving gender equality, and what’s more, many men and women don’t know it.

Many scientists say that implicit gender bias doesn’t apply to them, said Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University. After all, they argue, science is a meritocracy, and scientists are trained to be objective.

Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said, “we as scientists, both men and women, have somehow thought that we magically escape implicit bias.”

But at the symposium, Handelsman presented the results of a study that found otherwise.

In 2010, she and a colleague conducted a study that looked at the unconscious gender bias of biologists, chemists, and physicists at research institutions across the country. 

More than 100 scientists were each presented with a resume of a student applying to be a lab manager. The applicants were identical, except for one thing: half of the participants received an application from “John,” and half received an application from “Jennifer.”

Both male and female participants in the study were more likely to hire John over Jennifer and would have offered John a higher salary.

Respondents were also more inclined to mentor John than Jennifer, which could have big implications for the future of science, said Handlesman.

“Faculty across the sciences act as gatekeepers of the sciences,” she said. “They think John is more competent than Jennifer, [so] you can imagine all of those small interactions in which faculty give advice, give help after class, answer questions, suggest opportunities, … those very, very small differences built over many, many interactions could have a devastating effect on women.”

Bonham said that the higher you look on what she calls the “leadership ladder,” the more apparent unconscious gender bias becomes.

While 54 percent of instructors in medical schools are women, only 12 percent of deans are women, according to a 2012 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

The panelists gave varied advice to women in the audience, suggesting strategies to shrink the gender gap that ranged from finding mentors and coaches, nominating other women for leadership positions, showing more images of famous women scientists, and even playing a board game called WAGES (Workshop Activity for Gender Equity Simulation) that educates players about subtle gender bias. 

There is reason for hope, says Mwenesi, who has proven it possible to overcome the gender gap and more.

“My take home message is we can and should institute a number of solutions that have been instituted in other fields,” she said. “It is not all doom or gloom.”

For an African woman to get to a leadership position in the field of global health, Mwenesi explained, she must overcome hurdles that most American women don’t even have to think about, like early marriage, religious restrictions, and language barriers.

Originally from a small Muslim village outside of Nairobi, Mwenesi is the first person in her family — and one of the first in her village — to graduate from college, and she is the first person in her village in 20 years to earn a PhD. Her parents believed strongly in education, she said, and encouraged all eight of their children to become educated.

She said she has had to work “doubly hard” to get to where she is because “being female itself is a barrier,” she said, “as is being African.”

Mwenesi now works as a senior project director focusing on malaria at FHI 360, an organization that helps the private sector work to improve the health of people in developing countries. She has worked with government leaders around Africa to implement the commitments they have made to fight malaria.

And she keeps moving forward.

“We all want a world without disease and sickness,” she said. “We want to realize our potential. And that’s why I push on.”

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