Equity and Social Determinants

Top 5 lessons from Asia Pacific’s women leaders in health

By Britta Baer, Kate Silburn and Vivian Lin

“International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”— United Nations

Attention to gender equality and women’s empowerment isn’t new. International Women’s Day on 8 March has been celebrated since 1975. National celebrations of women have been around for much longer in many countries and cultures. Sustainable Development Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls.

But the key question is: How? What does it all mean? And what have we learned?

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, the World Health Organization spoke to women across the Western Pacific Region—from different communities, of different ages, in different jobs, with different levels of responsibility. We asked them to share their experiences and stories about leadership, inspiration and believing in themselves.

Here are the top 5 lessons for women from women:

1. Celebrate

Leadership can take many forms. Women are leaders at work and at home—in communities and families, in organizations, private companies and governments. Of course, women aren’t the only leaders in these spaces. But International Women’s Day is an opportunity to focus on women’s contributions and celebrate them. And there’s a lot to celebrate in health: women lead government policy making; they work as medical professionals; they’re advocates for health and gender equality; they manage organizations and teams; they analyse information and evidence; they stand up for marginalized communities and much, much more. There’s no limit to what women can do, if enabled and empowered to do so.

So let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and what still remains to be done.

2. Inspire

At times, the greatest impact a leader can have is to inspire another. Hearing the many different stories of women’s leadership, experiences, reflections and advice, their honesty and ability to laugh, to fail and to try again—all this can inspire other women to follow in their footsteps. Sharing stories and advice, including through mentoring, isn’t a new idea, but its importance can’t be stressed enough. Women have a critical role to play in inspiring other women, especially younger women. When we see women in leadership, it inspires other women to lead. Women can speak out and empower younger generations to be confident and fulfil their potential.

So ask yourself, who inspires you, and who do you want to inspire?

3. Be brave

Being a leader isn’t always easy. Have you ever lacked confidence, been scared of taking risks or of making a decision, perhaps the wrong decision? Maybe speaking in front of a crowd makes you nervous? Maybe you worry about the potential fall-out for leading a major project? It’s surprising how many women share the same worry. The solution is simple—but potentially scary. Just try it. Have courage, raise your hand, speak out, and maybe it will work. If not, it’s not about being perfect. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. That’s the best way to learn. The important thing is to try and take the risk. Your voice is important.

4. Dream big

Some days, the goal of gender equality seems very near. Other days, we seem stuck in the trenches or sliding backwards. On a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to focus on what doesn’t work, on the mistakes we’ve made or what’s stopping us empowering women and girls, advancing their health and well-being and achieving gender equality. We asked women what they would tell their younger selves and the answer is to dream big, to imagine great things and go after them. Leadership can also be about identifying and grabbing opportunities when they present themselves—whether at home, in communities or at work. Too often, challenges appear, people raise doubts or your own hesitations stop you. Looking back on your life and career, are you likely to feel bad about believing in yourself and your own greater potential?

So go for it, dream big and don’t forget to laugh.

5. Tell your story

Women’s leadership in health is important because women’s voices are often missing. How often do discussions about women, health and gender take place without women in the room? This needs to change. And change is difficult. It requires time, space, resources, commitment, and partnership. Let’s start by listening and learning from our experiences and those around us. This needs women of all backgrounds to step up and tell their stories, to share their successes and their failures, and to engage in reflection and dialogue. It also needs men and boys to engage in those dialogues, to ask critical questions, and to work with women and girls to ensure everyone, everywhere is as healthy as possible.

Of course, more work needs to be done. International Women’s Day is only one day. But on this day, WHO joins partners in celebrating gender equality and women’s empowerment.

This feature is part of a larger project collecting stories of women’s leadership in health in the Western Pacific Region, to learn from experience and to inform action so that every woman and every girl can reach her potential in health and life.

So join us, and tell us your story.


Many thanks to the women who contributed their time and wisdom and who continue to inspire us (in alphabetical order): Myriam Abel, Rosy Sofia Akbar, Pat Anderson, Corinne Capuano, Soulany Chansy, Mildred Fernando-Pancho, Juliet Fleischl, Sevil Huseynova, Elizabeth Iro, Tuberi Jokapeci, Ngoun Sophak Kanika, Li Ailan, Chunying Lin, Vivian Lin, Elva Lionel, Ying-Ru Lo, Jiko Luveni, Marina Mahathir, Insoon Nam, Nguyễn Thị Kim Tiến, Nicola Roxon, Socheata Sann, Jiani Sun, Jasmine Vergara, Shinko Yajima, Naoko Yamamoto, Shunhua Zhang, and others.