Statement by Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, for International Women’s Day

8 March 2017

Women in the WHO European Region work hard for health. They are health policy-makers, health managers, doctors, nurses, midwives, nutritionists, health advocates, health promoters and more. At the same time, women carry out most of the unpaid care work that is so crucial to good health and well-being, including taking care of older family members and children.

On International Women’s Day, the United Nations calls on the global community to step up its commitment to achieving gender equality – a “Planet 50-50” – by 2030. This call to action is underpinned by regional and global commitments. Health 2020, the European health policy framework, calls for countries in the Region to address imbalances regarding women’s and men’s contributions to the health workforce, and Sustainable Development Goal 5 seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Specifically, target 5.4 calls for recognition and value to be given to unpaid care and domestic work, and for promotion of shared responsibility for such work.

The numbers tell us that women, in fact, make up a majority of health professionals in all countries across the WHO European Region. Recent data show that 52% of all physicians in the Region are women, an average that is steadily rising. In some countries it is as high as 74%. Still, we cannot claim that gender equality has been reached within the health workforce. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions and high-prestige specialties but overrepresented in branches with low earnings. Studies show that the health workforce is still characterized by gender stereotypes and that women health professionals tend to choose careers where they can balance work with family demands. The evidence also indicates that the most precarious and underpaid care jobs within the health workforce are often done by migrant women.

Women in the WHO European Region work hard for others’ health, sometimes at the expense of their own. A recently launched WHO Regional Office for Europe report on the health and well-being of women highlights that women live an average of almost 10 years of their lives in ill health. Differences in women’s life expectancy in the Region are striking, reaching up to 15 years between certain countries.

Gender inequalities in the labour market, as well as women’s large share of unpaid health care work, have consequences for women’s health. Conflicts between work and family responsibilities can be stressful, often affecting both women’s careers and their health. Gender pay gaps lead to gender pension gaps and, consequently, poorer health and living conditions for women in old age. But these inequalities and barriers to gender equity need not persist. Policies that seek to create and support a positive, flexible working environment for women in the health sector, with equal opportunities for professional development and career advancement, will be critical factors to improving the recruitment and retention of women in the health workforce.

As a woman leader in public health, I am proud to work in a Region where women’s health issues are taken seriously and prioritized. In September 2016 Member States in the Region adopted a strategy for women’s health and well-being. It contains recommendations to move the women’s health agenda forward within the health sector and beyond. The WHO Regional Office for Europe has also been closely engaged with the United Nations High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth, whose report and recommendations set out key gender aspects in relation to supporting employment in the health sector as a social and economic benefit.

Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals relies on unlocking the full potential of women at work. The health sector, being such an important employer of women, is a good place to start.