It is a pivotal time to be a young woman launching a career in global health. Canada has a Feminist International Assistance Policy, twitter is flooded with hashtags (#allmalepanel, #genderequality, #GenderPayGap) promoting gender equality in global health leadership, conferences, and wages, as a result of woman around the world and organizations such as Women in Global Health and Global Health 5050 pressing for progress. So, how does a young woman go about launching a career in global health, and finding and defining her own leadership role?
For those just starting out and looking to find their footing, the first step is to ask yourself a key question and reflect on your position: ‘Why do you want to do global health work?’
Looking back, I cannot pinpoint exactly what inspired my desire to pursue a career in global health, I can say though that a decisive moment for me came after reading Stephen Lewis’ Massey Lecture ‘Race Against Time.’ I knew that the fundamental social, health, and economic inequalities in the world didn’t sit well with me, and that I wanted to work to reduce inequity. Despite this, I didn’t have a solid grasp on how, where, and why global health, nor did I really take the time to reflect on my own position. Now, as I’ve spent a number of years working in the field as a global health researcher, I continually check in and ask myself about my role as a Canadian white woman working in Kenya with street-connected young people. In the field, I consider my position as a researcher and the privilege and power this brings me, I reflect on what my role is and should be in Kenya, and how to work in a sustainable manner that upholds the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research (CCGHR) Principles. If you aren’t thinking about these things, and instead are parachuting into a medical or global public health rotation thinking you will save the world, then you probably need to stop, reflect, and reassess why you want to do global health work. This is fundamental regardless of your gender.
So you’ve reflected on why you want to work in global health, the next step is to decide when, where, and what type of training you need?
I was fortunate enough to seek out training opportunities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels that supported students’ exposure to and pursuit of global health research and practice. This is essential; find a supportive environment and program that exemplifies principles that align with your global health values and interests. Seek out training that involves practical experience, and don’t be afraid to take time between training programs to explore, as Kandace Ryckman recently wrote for PH Spot, launching your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Training doesn’t just occur in academia and in the walls of institutions. I took 4 years off between my MPH and PhD, in which I lived and worked in Kenya. This time turned into some of the most valuable global health research experience for me, and gave me practical skills that I would have never obtained if I had rushed on immediately to pursue a PhD. Take your time in choosing your training path – explore, volunteer, and gain work experience. What you can learn in the field from your local collaborators and real life experience cannot be underestimated.
When you do choose a training program, the field of global public health is vast, and depending on your interests you may pursue degrees from a variety of fields. Global public health professionals have diverse backgrounds ranging from economics, to public health, to international development and social policy. It’s important to find your niche, one that resonates with you, and that brings meaning to your pursuit of an equitable world. For young women, explore the faculty at the institution you are looking to attend. Ensure women are in positions of leadership and recognized for their valuable roles and contributions in the field within the faculty. Finally, if there are women in the faculty whose research aligns with your interests, reach out and see if they are available to provide mentorship or supervision.
Which brings us to mentorship and community – Who are your mentors and community? This is one of the most important things for young women to consider when launching a career in global health and establishing their own role as a leader. Building on Jocalyn Clark’s final piece of advice to women “find your sisterhood”; I cannot stress this enough. Find a number of incredible strong brilliant women mentors and surround yourself in a supportive community. Being a woman in global health can add an extra layer of complexity, for example, you may find yourself living for extended periods of time in countries that don’t value women as equals. It will also be challenging to balance your budding global health career and personal life. Your drive to take on positions of leadership, extended periods of travel, and commitment to your work will intersect with women’s decision making regarding relationships, marriage, and childbearing. Empathetic mentors and community will help you navigate these intersections and support your decisions, while empowering you to continue on your career path. I am immensely grateful to be surrounded by women leaders in global health at the University of Toronto, in my work at AMPATH-Kenya, and my role as an executive for CCGHR’s Students & Young Professionals Network. Your mentors and community will continually inspire you, assist you in navigating your global health career as a woman, and stand with you in solidarity in the pursuit of gender equality in global health and beyond.
Solidarity is important. In the field of global health, no matter which equity gap you are trying to narrow, there are times when it can be overwhelming, taxing, and seem like an insurmountable task. Therefore, it’s important to identify what brings you balance?
While finding meaning in your work is vital, it’s important not to let it completely encompass your life and drive your identity. This is easier said than done in the field of global public health where you can find yourself isolated and defined by your work. Having a life outside of your ambition to tackle global health inequities is particularly important, as it will give you the energy to continue to do the difficult work you do to narrow those gaps. Find other outlets you love, that bring creativity, inspiration, and diversity to your life.
About the Author
Lonnie Embleton is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Medical Science in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. She is a Vanier Scholar and aims to be a Canadian leader in global health research working to positively produce change and address global public health problems for vulnerable populations. For the past eight years she has lived and worked in Kenya, conducting research projects with vulnerable children and youth concerning their sexual health, HIV, substance use, human rights, and social policy. Outside of work, she’s an avid cyclist and runner, and occasional yogi.