The HHA CoPs are launching an ambitious new working group to tackle a nagging problem – too few women participating actively in peer-to-peer learning.
Having been in global health for some 20 years now, I have worked with many strong and inspiring women colleagues at all levels – global health is literally full of them. And yet, I feel increasingly frustrated by the “maleness” of it all.
It seems I am not alone: from the petition to end all-male panels (bizarrely, a movement led by men) to the new sustainable development goals (all of which have some focus on progress for women), to Melinda Gates’ initiative to close the data gap on women, there is widespread acknowledgement that gender equality is both desirable and fundamentally necessary to progress, but that we are not doing an adequate job to get there. And yet, we listen to the same men speak at conference after conference…
Quite recently, I was a participant in a national workshop in a West African country, and when it came time for group work, a familiar scenario unfolded. The group had to nominate a president and a rapporteur. Without any discussion or hesitation, the youngest woman (one of very few women participants in the overall workshop. I’ll let you guess what the profile of the president was) was informed she would be the rapporteur. She did not protest. Over the rest of the afternoon, several loquacious and supremely confident men would do most of the talking, while she would attempt to capture and distill (usually unsuccessfully) some “key points” for the report-out from their gab. The result was something less than ideal.
Men seem to occupy significantly more air time than women when it comes to global and national health fora – let’s call it a participation gap.
CoPs to the rescue?
Some years back I became rather disaffected by the “global health stratosphere” and the development partner project model and I became a proponent of the (at-the-time) rather new approach to collaborative learning and south-south networks. In the HHA Communities of Practice I have been facilitating since 2010, the focus is explicitly on bringing forth and sharing individual expertise (irrespective of institutional affiliation or rank, nor of course gender) and encouraging a younger generation of African experts to work differently. These communities of practice emphasize community and are non-hierarchical. They focus on continuous learning using evidence and sharing experience to find operational solutions to daily health systems challenges. We have been free to experiment and evolve based on experience and results.
And yet, even in this rather unconventional setting, even with the younger generation, I continue to observe the participation gap: men dominate CoP activities as well. With the exception of the role of CoP facilitator (where there is more or less parity), male expert members are more numerous than female. Men participate more in CoP collaborative projects, in workshops, in writing articles, and seemingly also in on-line exchanges. I got to asking myself, why is the participation of women experts in our CoPs so timid?
Interestingly, Wikipedia has faced a similar challenge when it comes to women’s participation. In 2011, only 9% of contributions globally were from women. Despite several initiatives to correct this bias, the organization has failed to meet its goal of increasing women’s participation to 25% by 2015. A Harvard Business Review article on the Wikipedia experience sums up the stakes: “The gender gap issue matters for several reasons. From a pure content perspective, men and women may bring different interests and preferences, and they may focus on different issues. If we have such a small percentage of women contributing, then there are a lot of issues that will potentially be skewed or get less attention than they should.” (1)
No Time to waste, join us !
We feel that this analysis also applies to our CoPs, and we plan to do something about it. Our experience leads us to believe that peer-to-peer learning will play an increasingly important role in knowledge management for global health, as well as in the development of individual experts’ careers. Thus the gender gap we observe is problematic, and the time to act is now. So in July, we will launch a working group, “Peer-to-peer learning in global health: where are all the women?” The idea is to bring together a small group of CoP members to document and analyse the current situation, and to try to get to the bottom of the participation gap…The composition of the group will be majority women, but we hope to have several (enlightened) men as well.
Participation in this working group is open. If you are interested, you will find more information as well as the link to apply here. You will also be one of the first to discover Collectivity, a new collaborative platform we are in the process of building. Be aware that this group will be capped at 12 people for efficiency’s sake. So hurry and make your case for participation; we expect we will have to turn some away…
One of the tasks of this working group will be to develop an on-line survey, and we count on your responses to it. In the Fall, based on our analysis, we will be proposing some solutions to begin to close the gender participation gap in our CoPs. We recognize that the problem will not be solved in just a few months, but we are motivated and ambitious. Perhaps there will be some broader lessons for global health collaboration?
(1) “Why do so few women edit Wikipedia,” Nicole Torres, Harvard Business Review, June 2016