The Gender Pay Gap Is A Human Rights Issue Affecting Global Health – Fix It Now

By Amie Batson, President, WomenLift Health, and Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO, Amref Health Africa

In June 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. The groundbreaking legislation mandated equal pay for equal work and forbade employers from paying women less than men for comparable work requiring the same skills and responsibilities.

During the signing ceremony, which marked a significant milestone toward ending gender-based wage discrimination, President Kennedy praised the legislation as a “significant step forward”. He also acknowledged that much more needed to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity for women.

Sixty years on, his words still ring true. In low- and lower-middle income countries such as Sierra Leone and Pakistan for example, women are paid between 40-45 percent less than their male counterparts. Globally, women health professionals earn on average 24 percent less than their male peers in the same jobs, representing one of the widest pay gaps according to the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization.

While progress has been made to narrow gender pay gaps, with countries such as Iceland leading the charge by declaring it illegal to pay men more than women for the same work, the continuing pay disparity in numerous sectors including health remains a persistent issue that undermines progress on a global scale and puts both lives and livelihoods at risk.

When women earn less than men for equally valuable and skilled work, they are less likely to join the health workforce, invest in their own education and training, or be able to provide for themselves and their families. Juxtapose those facts with current estimates of a global workforce shortage of 10 million health workers by 2030. The wage gap is not only unfair and inequitable, it is undermining our health, community resiliency, and global economic growth.

None of this is new. A recent stakeholder analysis on women’s leadership in health, carried out by WomenLift Health and partners in North America, Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and India, highlights unequal pay as one of the universal barriers impacting women’s ability to advance to leadership positions in health. 

And yet, despite the urgency of losing health workers – primarily women – because of unfair pay as well as overwork, pervasive disrespect, and poor and even dangerous work conditions, there is little happening to address these inequities. It’s a reality that puts us all at risk and deepens disparities in healthcare access, quality, and outcomes, especially for people in lower-income communities and countries where health worker shortages are even more acute.  

At the current rate of progress, or lack thereof, women will not achieve equal pay until 2069

Why does equal pay for work of equal value remain an illusion for so many women in the workplace? Why do women continue to earn 77 US cents for every dollar earned by a man, and even less for women with children and women of color?

Failure to answer these questions and follow through with sustainable solutions is an affront to the tireless efforts of the women who safeguard the health and wellbeing of communities worldwide, often doing so in hazardous conditions. Undervaluing the efforts of female health workers through inequality in remuneration is not just a money issue – it’s a human rights issue that normalizes discrimination in the workplace and takes us further away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Addressing this injustice is not just the right or moral thing to do, it is a strategic and economic imperative that will impact the economy as well as quality and access to health services for millions of people.

We must take bold and decisive action to address the reasons behind the pay gap, putting our money where our mouths are.

Action is needed by governments, health and academic institutions, the private sector, multilateral institutions, development organizations, and civil society. It starts with requiring transparency in pay and establishing consequences for gender-based wage discrimination, and requires addressing the subtle forms of discrimination that penalize women for being women. 

Investing in women’s professional development through coaching and mentorship programs, and implementing gender sensitive workplace policies for example, will help address the barriers that stand in the way of women’s career advancement.  

Taking action will have far-reaching implications on both the meaningful participation of women advancing into leadership roles in health, and the impact their experience and expertise has on health outcomes.   

Women are the backbone of health. Protecting them from the continued injustice of unequal pay will bring us closer to creating a healthier, more equitable world.

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