Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Empowering African women leaders is key for health equity – Nature Human Behaviour

In Africa, we cannot afford to wait for existing systems to correct at the current slow pace. We must do things differently to recognize and address the effects of gender discrimination that are holding women back. This will have a catalytic effect on health and economic indices and the overall development of our region. We frame our recommendations in three parts to address gender inequity in the continent.

Getting them there — improving education access and gendered policy

To address gender inequity, it is essential to ensure that girls and women have equitable access to education and resources. Governments and private organizations should invest in education and develop gender-sensitive policies that enable women to remain in education (including enabling access to menstrual hygiene products), and encourage women to pursue so-called male-dominated fields. This approach should encompass not only the provision of scholarships, mentorship programmes and career counselling to women and girls, but also policies that facilitate flexible work arrangements to help women to balance work and family responsibilities, equal pay policies and even gender quotas that establish targets for the representation of women in male-dominated fields. Schools and universities should review academic curricula to ensure they are inclusive and representative of diverse perspectives and experiences. Providing training on gender equity to faculty and staff will also help to identify and address biases, and create and promote inclusive and supportive learning environments for all students, regardless of gender.

Keeping them there — providing mentorship, peer support and gender-sensitive workplaces

The authors have a mentor–mentee relationship and, by learning from each other, we are challenging the patriarchy that has affected our region for years and across generations. We believe that it is essential for employers to enable access to mentorship and peer support, for all women in the workforce — particularly in male-dominated industries.

We call for intentional investment in mentoring girls and young women, so they are better equipped to navigate the disadvantages that women face early on and contribute to addressing this. We recognize that this is not a responsibility for girls and women alone, and even boys should be mentored from a young age so that they do not perpetuate oppressive patriarchal attitudes.

Mentors can help women to navigate the workplace and provide advice on how to overcome and challenge gender bias and discrimination. Mentors do not necessarily have to be women, but it is important to have mentors who are committed to advancing gender equity and who are willing to challenge the status quo. To mitigate the potential adverse effects of women being disproportionately responsible for mentoring new employees, organizations can take steps to create formal mentorship programmes that distribute the responsibility for mentoring more evenly among employees. These programmes should ensure that mentoring roles are recognized as valuable to the organization or profession and that mentors receive appropriate recognition and compensation, in terms of career progression and financial reward. Employers should be required by law to create gender-sensitive workplaces that are free from harassment, discrimination and gender-based violence. This should be included as a key indicator for monitoring by relevant government agencies that enforce labour laws and regulations. Employers must implement policies to address sexual harassment, including a clear and comprehensive sexual harassment policy that outlines prohibited behaviours, the reporting process and the consequences for violating the policy. In addition, they should provide regular training to employees on how to recognize and appropriately address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Thriving there — ensuring representation, respect and pay equity

Women thrive where they are valued. To value women in the workplace, it is crucial that employers in government, private sector, academic institutions, professional associations and civil society organizations ensure that women have representation in leadership positions and such women are treated with respect.

Women should not continue to bear the burden of unpaid work. In many African societies, women are often expected to fulfil traditional gender roles such as caring for children and older individuals, cooking, cleaning and managing household affairs. This expectation is carried over into the workplace, with women expected to take on often undervalued and unpaid pastoral roles that leave them with less time to focus on career development and advancement than their male counterparts.

There should be deliberate investment to have more women and girls in formal, paid work. The work that ‘women do’ — including caring for children and older individuals, maintaining links between families and formal institutions such as schools and healthcare facilities — should be valued and included in the measurement of the economy. Employers should provide fair and equitable pay for all employees regardless of gender. This can be achieved by conducting regular pay equity audits and addressing any disparities. Employers should move beyond tokenistic gestures such as using diversity as a marketing or public relations tool without actually changing recruitment and other decision-making processes. Instead, such diversity, equity and inclusion should move from being ‘add-ons’ to being core to the workplace values, backed up by enforcement, reward and penalty mechanisms.

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