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Facilitating Women’s Professional Success

Traci L. Baird, President & CEO, EngenderHealth  

My female mentors have supported me both professionally and personally, and helped normalize female success and leadership. When I look more broadly at the field of global health, I recognize that we do not see gender equality at the leadership level in the sector. I’m looking forward to Women in Dev to connect with women at all stages of their careers so we can build our networks to support and celebrate each other, and to expand gender equality and diversity in leadership.”

In our first blog of the new year, Traci L. Baird, President & CEO of EngenderHealth, writes on the importance of mentors and how as a CEO she sees her role in addressing systemic and structural issues.

My very first public health mentor coached me on something that helps me to this day: how to pack for a business trip.

I was in high school. We had been invited to New York to speak with educators about a peer education program designed to address teen drinking and driving, using a harm-reduction perspective. I was one of the original peer educators, and had been delivering the program to teens and adults in Southern California. Packing for two days in New York, in a carry-on, definitely benefitted from the wisdom of my mentor.

In the 30 years since then, I have continuously benefitted from the generosity of many mentors and managers. Some men have boosted my career and remain lifelong colleagues and friends, but women especially have helped me develop as a professional. Each of them cared about my professional goals, identified concrete ways to help me achieve those goals, and supported my personal and family life in addition to my work life. In particular, whenever I felt like I had something to prove – for example, when I was tempted to attend an international conference during my maternity leave – they helped me clarify my values and objectives and supported my decisions. Once, that meant staying home with my baby and having someone else make the trip. Another time it meant traveling with my infant, with the support of my supervisor and organization. In both cases, I knew that my mentors had my back.

I’ve worked my whole career on global health issues that largely affect women – like abortion – and perhaps because of this I’ve always worked with a lot of women and with strong women leaders. My female mentors have supported me both professionally and personally, and helped normalize female success and leadership. When I look more broadly at the field of global health, I recognize that we do not see gender equality at the leadership level in the sector. I’m looking forward to Women in Dev to connect with women at all stages of their careers so we can build our networks to support and celebrate each other, and to expand gender equality and diversity in leadership.

As someone who continues to benefit from the support of my mentors, I endeavor to mentor other women who are pursuing their careers, helping them identify and seize opportunities. I love talking with students at the “exploring public health” phase of their lives as much as I enjoy supporting mid-career women as they decide their next professional steps. I learn from each conversation and feel our community getting stronger through our engagement.

The one-to-one relationships that are built through mentoring can be enormously beneficial to those involved. However, just as a public health approach focuses “upstream” to address the systems and contextual issues that affect health, a systems approach is critical to facilitating women’s professional success. As a CEO I take very seriously my role in addressing these systems and structural issues.

For example, at EngenderHealth we are reviewing our HR practices and identifying ways to reduce bias in our systems. We no longer ask for past salary information, as this puts women and minorities at a disadvantage. We have reduced the “years worked” requirements in many of our job postings, focusing instead on skill and ability. We have reviewed and improved our parental leave policies. And we are looking at the gender balance across our global offices and across levels of positions. While we have many female leaders across the organization, we also have some offices where women are underrepresented at the leadership level, and we are exploring how we can ensure that our systems, structures, and policies are improved so women can thrive at all levels of our global organization.

We do this work in the context of a global health sector with a gender problem. While global health organizations tend to have more females on staff, leadership positions in those same organizations are more frequently filled by males. In other words, it’s not a pipeline problem, it’s a problem with how leadership positions are filled and with how – and many cases, whether – organizations value and support female talent.

This problem is clearly within our collective power to overcome. I look forward to the Women in Dev conference as an opportunity for women to connect, mentor each other, learn from one another, and work collectively to improve systems and better facilitate women’s success at all levels.