An Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) counselling a rural woman. ASHAs are credited with bringing down infant mortality rates in India Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Often, a discussion about women in medicine elicits names of stellar doctors, each who steered path-breaking work, saved thousands of lives and made the world a better place.

In India, the list would begin with Dr Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman doctor who trained in Western medicine in 1885 and Dr Kadambani Ganguly, the second. Others would include Dr S.I. Padmavati, India’s first woman cardiologist; Dr Indira Hinduja who delivered India’s first GIFT (Gamete intrafallopian transfer technique) baby; Dr Jayashree Mondkar, who started Asia’s first human milk bank; Dr Neelam Kler, who is known for her pioneering work in neonatal care; Dr Ketayun Dinshaw, who revolutionised cancer treatment in the country; and Dr Ajita Chakraborty, one of the first women to make a mark in transcultural psychiatry in India. These women among many more raised the bar in clinical excellence and also opened doors for others to make their mark in healthcare.

India has only about 27 per cent women in the workforce and it’s paramount for multiple reasons that we take it to the world average of 48 per cent. A rise in female employment rates to the male level would provide India with an extra 235 million workers.

- Dr Preetha Reddy, Vice-Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited

In the present day though, women in healthcare are not just doctors or nurses, but are participants across the entire spectrum of healthcare, from ASHA workers serving the soul of India in thousands of villages right up to CEOs and directors of healthcare organisations.

Now, a new decade of the millennium has begun and greater positive change must be the order of the day. Currently India has only about 27 per cent women in the workforce and it’s paramount for multiple reasons that we take it to the world average of 48 per cent. To put it in perspective, a rise in female employment rates to the male level would provide India with an extra 235 million workers, more than the EU has of either gender. According to the International Monetary Fund, a mere addition of the missing Indian women to the workforce would make the world’s biggest democracy richer by 27 per cent.

Call for action

An encouraging aspect is that over the past few years, there has been a concerted focus on fixing the gender gap, and as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address, India is moving from women development to women-led development. This as he said is important as mainstreaming the concerns of women and engaging them as partners and active agents of change in social, economic, cultural and political processes would greatly benefit the nation. This is definitive as women’s empowerment has a multiplier effect not only on their own lives but also on the family and society.

In 2016, the UN High Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth called for action to “maximise women’s economic participation and foster their empowerment through institutionalising their leadership, addressing gender bias and inequities in education and the health labour market, and tackle gender concerns in health reform processes.”

However, to do this, we need to create an ecosystem that supports and empowers women to bring their unique skills to the fore and also increases their participation in decision-making and leadership positions. Globally, women hold only approximately 35 per cent of leadership roles in the healthcare industry.

Rise into leadership

It is rather ironical that it is women who are responsible for 70-80 per cent of the care provided in Indian hospitals, yet only 25-35 per cent hold leadership positions, which draws attention to the acute need to galvanise the female workforce across levels. With focused impetus, women could also participate in educating the community about living healthy and preventive healthcare. So, it is vital that stakeholders engaged in healthcare invest in leadership training for women to prepare them for senior roles.

Undoubtedly, while women leaders are great role models, alongside, men in responsible positions too must take steps to usher in this change. My father, Dr Prathap C. Reddy, groomed all four of us, his daughters, into taking up leadership positions in Apollo, with each having a clearly defined role, one that suited our strengths. Ever since, taking this forward, we passionately mentor women in our organisation and our HRD works to provide support by introducing initiatives to help them manage their careers and family life.

From a big-picture perspective, the gender leadership gap in healthcare is also a barrier in India reaching the sustainable development goals. As the backbone of society, women can play an equal role within a nation for its development as well as its economic momentum. There are shining examples to illustrate that women possess the capability to manage everything starting from their home and office to even a ministry. Additionally, as a sector, healthcare has been proven to be an engine for job creation. So, India must take the lead in growing the sector as an employment generator and also empower her women to lead the change, and be the key to good health, prosperity and happiness for all.

The writer is Vice-Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited