Women health workers 'punished' for being mothers

Time has come for employers to stop silently punishing women for bearing children as this is one of the many reasons that push women out of leadership positions, public health physician Dr Ebere Okereke has observed.

Okereke is also Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Public Health Foundation and is based in Kenya, Nairobi. She is disturbed greatly by the low numbers of women leaders in the health sector.

She told The Midweek Sun in an interview that 70 percent of the healthcare workforce globally are women. And if one is to include the informal health sector, 90 percent of people delivering the healthcare are women.

Dr Okereke noted that one disturbing realisation is that when women come back from maternity leave, they often find that the organisation has moved on and left them behind. No one is then interested in making efforts of bringing the woman back into the fold.

“It is like she is getting punished for giving birth,” Okereke said. She is calling on all employers to formulate policies that accommodate the needs of mothers, such as providing a crèche nearby where mothers can easily get a 10 minutes break to check on their young ones.

“Giving birth to children should not be a barrier for women to continue to thrive in society. Policies should not penalise women who take time off for care responsibilities, they need to accommodate them,” she said, adding that there is also need to ensure that the workplace makes women feel safe.

“Too often we hear about sexual discrimination and Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the workplace where women often feel threatened and intimidated.”

There is also need for the education system to track and retain women in the Science, Technology and Engineering and Medical spaces because such qualifications are required for leadership roles.

Okereke appreciates that across the world, more women are getting educated but is worried that on the African continent, the numbers of women getting an education are not growing at a rapid pace like in other regions of the world.

She said that the Africa continent has the highest number of girls who are not educated and if women do not get an education, chances of them ascending to leadership positions are minimal.

The effect of not having women in decision making processes is that even when research for new medication and medical devices is made, people who are used in research studies are men.

So when the products come on the market, they have not been tested on women, meaning chances are the product will not give the same effectiveness for women.

“I urge research leaders to be willing to include women because the quality of decisions improves when there is diversity of perspectives,” Dr Okereke said.

There is also cultural perception that leaders are men, and Okereke believes that this is wrong. Men should know that while giving birth and being pregnant is a biological thing, raising the child or looking after an elderly person can be performed by both genders.

She added that men also have to step up to be caregivers while women work, saying doing so can actually assist men in accessing medical services just like women.

She believes that the reason women seem to be major recipients of health care service is because they are always attending to their sick family members and children. That is how they get an opportunity to have health education about prevention and healthy lifestyle.

Men, she said, underutilise the healthcare system and are less likely to engage in preventative healthcare activities. They only turn up for health service when they are seriously ill.

“Even though my father was a doctor, my mother and grandmother are the ones who decided that we needed healthcare. So women are the enablers of access to healthcare, even when they are not health professionals or in the health system themselves,” Okereke noted.

However, as a woman leader in the health sector she is fully aware that the journey sometimes gets very lonely, especially when a woman does not have a strong support system.

“We need women to learn from other women, to be mentored, coached and supported by women who are on the same journey. Leadership is lonely if you are underrepresented. Support can help navigate the loneliness and challenges

faced, creating room for them to thrive and progress,” she said.

A report produced by the WHO Global Health Workforce Network’s Gender Equity Hub titled, 'Delivered by women, led by men,' states that in general, women deliver global health and men lead it.

This is because medicine was established as a male-only profession and it has taken time for women to overcome discrimination against their entry to the profession, senior posts and better-paid specialisms.

Unequal access of girls to education in many low and middle income countries, particularly to secondary schooling, also limited access to training for formal health sector jobs.

The report states that health systems and work conditions have been established to suit men’s life patterns and not women’s; for example, some health workers have limited parental leave entitlement.