Supporting Women Is the Key to Supporting Health Workers
International Women’s Day is both a celebration and a call to action. It is a day for acknowledging the work and sacrifice of women globally and a reminder to uplift women’s voices and rights. As we celebrate the achievements and progress of women around the world on March 8, we should also acknowledge and uplift female frontline health workers.
It’s clear that women’s contributions in the health workforce are integral to making health systems run. But it is also clear that women too often take on these indispensable roles without the compensation or decision-making power commensurate with their contributions. Women make up 90% of patient-facing health and care work positions yet they hold only 25% of the health care leadership roles. Women are 70% of the total health workforce globally, yet more than half of them – at least 6 million women – are unpaid or underpaid.
Women health workers make 28% less than men.
Globally, gender pay gaps are pervasive. Many women in the health workforce are not paid at all for their work, and even those who do have paid positions make an average of 28% less than men, a pay gap even larger than that of other economic sectors. Oftentimes female frontline health workers also carry a double burden of responsibility in the workplace and unpaid domestic work at home. Women do two to ten times more care work in the home than men. Lack of affordable childcare and senior care means that support for this work is often out of reach or is costly if it is available at all. When crises hit, women and girls not only tend to eat last and least, but their in-home burdens are unlikely to reduce.
But the need to support women health workers does not end with increasing their pay and reducing their labor burdens; their safety must be prioritized as well. About one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and during crises, that increases to 70%. Even as they seek to serve others, health workers can face harassment in the workplace, and if their place of employment is far from where they live or their transportation is unreliable, they are vulnerable to harassment and violence in transit too. The World Health Organization estimates that 8-38% of health workers face some form of physical violence in their careers, and many more are threatened with violence. A survey of medical staff in the United States found that 30% of women reported experiencing sexual violence in the workplace compared to just 4% of men.
Frontline health workers often put themselves at great personal risk to care for their patients, so it’s critical that they have access to the health care they need for themselves, too. All cadres of health workers—whether paid or unpaid, formal or informal—need to have adequate, well-fitting personal protective equipment and should be prioritized for immunizations and health services to stay safe from the diseases they seek to treat. They should also have the agency and ability to make informed health decisions for themselves, particularly when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health. Over 257 million women around the world have an unmet need for family planning, and with such a high percentage of frontline health workers being women, that unmet need directly impacts their ability to do their jobs. When people can choose when and whether to have children, they have healthier babies, they reduce their risk of maternal mortality and pregnancy complications, and they increase their ability to participate in the workforce, reach their educational goals, and contribute to their families and communities.
Addressing the gendered challenges women face improves their lives and increases their ability to better the lives of others.
Addressing the gendered challenges and power imbalances women face in their communities goes a long way toward improving their lives, and with women making up so much of the health workforce, it also increases their ability to better the lives and health of the people in the communities they serve. Improving women health workers’ conditions in the workplace is critical for ensuring decades of investments and progress in global health are sustained, but efforts to support them are incomplete if health workers are not supported outside of the workplace, too.
Frontline health workers care for all of us. How can we show our care for them? Policymakers, donors, and implementing organizations should:
- Ensure health workers receive fair and timely pay.
- Prioritize gender parity in health care leadership roles.
- Reduce unpaid care burdens by implementing comprehensive family leave and affordable care support for health workers.
- Create and enforce mechanisms to prevent and address harassment and violence against health workers.
- Improve access to sexual and reproductive health and to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene for women health workers.
The best way to celebrate International Women’s Day is to give women—especially women health workers—our support and recognition on this day, and every day throughout the year.
In the words of Michelle Obama, “Communities, and countries, and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women.”