The White House's gender strategy demands bold global action

The White House's gender strategy demands bold global action

Last week, the White House launched the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. Led by the White House Gender Policy Council, this first-ever government-wide national gender strategy seeks to guide the Biden-Harris administration’s work on gender equity and equality. The goal is to have the concepts integrated throughout the administration’s domestic and foreign policy. The strategy says “advancing gender equity and equality is both a moral imperative and a strategic one” and “its pursuit drives the growth, development and security of communities, nations and the global economy.” 

Here’s why this strategy is important to how we implement health programs that are equitable and fair worldwide.  

The COVID-19 pandemic struck a deeply unequal world. These inequalities will deepen within and between countries unless we resolve to make this pandemic a radical break from the past. One of the deepest inequalities — gender inequality — if left unaddressed, will continue to undermine efforts to strengthen health systems and address gaps in global health security. The COVID-19 pandemic is proof of concept for a gender-responsive approach, and lessons learned from the ongoing response are an opportunity to address gender inequality in global health security, as well as health more broadly.

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The health sector is expanding fast and is a major employer of women. Globally, women make up 70 percent of the health workforce. However, they continue to face ongoing challenges with regards to safe, decent and equal work and pay. The pandemic has highlighted and increased the burden of unpaid domestic work done by women and increased gender-based violence against women. And, since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an alarming decline in health services that impact women and girls.

Given this stark reality, we applaud the strategy’s bold leadership in the categories of principles, priorities and implementation. The top-line global message is that the United States remains committed to expanding access to care for women, girls and other underserved communities around the world. Globally, the strategy pledges to, “address sociocultural factors that compromise access to care for women and girls, rendering them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, unattended births, and other poor health outcomes — including by engaging men and boys as partners in addressing gender inequities in health.” It also seeks to work with host and donor governments to “advance the critical role of women in the global health workforce … and address the barriers they face to career advancement, including pay inequity, harassment, and other factors.”

While we appreciate the whole-of-government approach with gender-based budgeting and efforts to close the gender data gap, we would have liked to have seen greater reference to gender impact assessments that need to be utilized at levels and stages of policy and program design and implementation. Another approach that we would recommend is using quotas and targets to accelerate change towards diversity goals. This would include mandating that senior leadership positions that have never been filled by women or people from underrepresented backgrounds be filled only by those groups, for example by mandating women-only shortlists. 

We are encouraged by the inclusion of core issues that impact global health and women’s rights, such as COVID and the increased burden of unpaid domestic and care work on women. Other challenges that were addressed include promoting gender equity while mitigating climate change and considering gender equality when addressing the impact of humanitarian crises and political unrest. 

The principles in the strategy are on-target to help address gender disparities worldwide. Baseline assessments and tracking and reporting on senior internal and external leadership appointments are the first steps in applying a lens to power structures. We also support the intersectionality that takes into consideration that race, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity often interact with gender to multiply disadvantage. This is critical to identifying mechanisms to support individuals and reduce barriers. 

The strategy makes it clear that gender equality is everyone’s business. This includes not only engaging men but having male leads at all levels of the government who are formally responsible for delivering on gender equality.

There are several other areas that we commend and find thoughtful. One is the idea of gender parity in leadership that ensures women from diverse backgrounds in particular are fully represented. Another important pillar is finance. The gender pay gap in the health sector is around 28 percent, higher than in many other economic sectors. The strategy declares that “women’s work — both paid and unpaid — is often overlooked and devalued, despite its critical role in the global economy.” Finally, we must keep women and girls safe. We appreciate that addressing violence and harassment is a core part of this strategy and particularly call out the action to convene a U.S. government task force to address technology-facilitated gender-based violence. 

Women have shouldered the burden of the pandemic as the majority of health and care workers. We cannot expect them to return to business and gender inequality as usual when this pandemic is finally over. We need a recovery with women in the driver’s seat that reconsiders the value put on women’s contributions — paid and unpaid — to our health, economies and social well-being. The evidence from America and in Europe is that women in health and social care are exhausted, angry and are voting with their feet and leaving the fields. 

Without women, there are no health and care services. The moral and strategic imperative to address gender equality just got critical.

Dr. Roopa Dhatt is the executive director of Women in Global Health. Nicole Schiegg is a former senior advisor at USAID and inaugural chair of Women in Global Health D.C.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the time period the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality was released.