Operation 50/50 and COVID 50/50: Fighting for Gender Equality Amid COVID-19

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SEATTLE, Washingon — Ever since COVID-19 cases were confirmed in large numbers, healthcare systems across the globe that were once thought to be well developed are struggling in the face of the pandemic. Weaknesses in a country’s healthcare structures are now in the world’s spotlight. Along with overcrowding and short-supply challenges, healthcare systems are facing the recognition of long-running problems of gender inequality in the workplace. The nonprofit organization Women in Global Health (WGH) has developed the campaigns Operation 50/50 and COVID 50/50 to improve the overlooked problem of women being underrepresented in our healthcare leadership sectors. To learn more about Operation 50/50 and COVID 50/50, The Borgen Project interviewed WGH’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Roopa Dhatt.

Women in Global Health

Dr. Roopa Dhatt founded WGH in 2015 when conversations about the gender gap in global health leadership were not yet mainstream, shared Dr. Dhatt. WGH is a nonprofit organization that partners “with other global health organizations to encourage stakeholders from governments, civil society, foundations, academia and professional associations and the private sector to achieve gender equality in global health leadership.”

WGH’s goal is to bring together all genders and backgrounds to achieve these goals. It believes that everyone should be able to attain equal levels of participation in leadership roles. The organization has chapters in 14 countries around the world, including Africa, Germany, Norway, Pakistan, Somalia and Sweden with 25,000 supporters from 90 different countries, according to Dr. Dhatt.

Unpaid Care Work

“This is the first time that the health community does not need to compete with other issues to be on the minds of everybody. It’s a rare opportunity to put a spotlight on the pervasiveness of gender inequities in the health sector,” Dhatt says. There are multiple ways in which the global health sector serves gender inequality, including continuing unpaid care work, keeping a gender pay gap (GPG) and not employing women in leadership roles.

While the health sector is a means of economic empowerment for women, Dhatt says, 50 percent of what women do in the health and social sectors is actually unpaid. Unpaid care work includes things like women caring for older family members, for their children and other household responsibilities. An OXFAM report showed that women and girls across the globe, especially those living in poverty, spend 12.5 billion hours each day doing unpaid care work.

According to Dhatt, many countries, such as Nepal and India, built their health systems on volunteer-community health-worker rules to meet humanitarian needs in times of mass crisis. However, after the crisis ended, these systems continued to be the backbone of healthcare for the communities. In the U.S. alone, the unpaid care work of women accounts for almost $1.3 trillion dollars.

The Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap (GPG) in healthcare systems is another issue WGH is focusing on improving. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that globally, the average GPG in the health workforce is 28 percent. When it comes to women in leadership roles, nearly 70 percent of the global healthcare workforce is made up of women, but only 25 percent of leadership roles include women, according to Dhatt. Inequality in leadership roles has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Women were at the front lines providing healthcare, but also the front lines being technical experts. But, [they’re] not getting any opportunities to really be at the decision-making table, especially in high-level expert groups,” Dhatt says. The first COVID-19 task team in both the U.S. and the U.K. consisted completely of male members, she says. In China, just 16 percent of the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19 is female; just 20 percent of the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19 is female.

Forming Operation 50/50

“The voices of women—especially women that are underrepresented—must be heard. So, that’s what really inspired the campaign,” Dhatt says. WGH and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) created Operation 50/50 in February. The two groups are attempting to change the discrepancy between men and women in leadership positions in healthcare sectors across the globe. Operation 50/50 is currently “compiling a list of expert women who are working to strengthen global, regional, national and local capacities to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks.”

“We wanted to see this campaign really lead to a shift in power and decision making so that we’re making smarter decisions,” Dhatt says. That way “we have a stronger, more resilient equitable and inclusive health systems for all.” Operation 50/50 will focus on evening out the playing field for men, women and non-binary healthcare employees. It also works to make sure that when the next pandemic happens, the world’s healthcare systems will be better prepared.

Extending to COVID 50/50

While Operation 50/50 is tackling the issues of gender inequality in the world’s healthcare sectors, WGH saw a need for more immediate improvement during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, WGH created COVID 50/50 as a 12-month call to action. The goal of the COVID 50/50 campaign is to achieve gender-responsive global health security and proposes five asks to “hardwire gender equality into healthcare systems.” The asks are aimed at WHO Member States, international agencies and non-governmental organizations in its agenda. According to Dhatt, achieving these five asks will better prepare the world for future pandemics.

WGH hopes that Operation 50/50 and COVID 50/50 will change the future structures of the world’s healthcare systems and leadership roles. Although these systems are currently facing many difficult challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, gender inequality is an issue that has been overlooked for too long and needs to be solved for future generations. “We want to make sure that the time after COVID-19 is truly a society that is inclusive and equitable. So, we’re very committed to making sure this campaign is in it for the long run for lasting change,” Dhatt says.

Marlee Septak
Photo: Flickr

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