Dr. Christine Sow is the first woman to take the helm of the Global Health Council (GHC), a leading membership organization supporting and connecting advocates, implementers, and stakeholders around global health priorities worldwide. Over the span of her career, she has led numerous initiatives to strengthen health systems and increase access to lifesaving drugs and services, working for non-profit, academic, bilateral and multilateral agencies—including more than 15 years in West Africa. Her current role as President and Executive Director of GHS is based out of Washington, D.C., but has a worldwide impact. We asked her about being one of the few female leaders in her field, and the GHS Women Leaders in Global Health initiative.
By Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO, Women of Influence
Stephania: What inspired you to go into your field?
Christine: The way that I got into women’s health and global health was around the idea that women are caretakers, whether they like it or not. And if a woman has to worry about her own health, and she has to worry about the health of her children and her family, typically she’ll be the first person responsible for that. And while she is struggling to get the money to pay for the care they need, or while she is sitting up at night with a sick kid, all that is taking her away from being able to mobilize around her rights and the rights of her community and around exercising her potential. And so I see health as a fundamental building block in letting women meet their potential, in terms of their professional engagements and community engagements, and in terms of speaking for their rights and the rights of their community.
You have more than 20 years of global health leadership experience on your resume. When you started your career, did you see yourself going into leadership roles?
I don’t know that I’ve had that ambition as such, but I’ve definitely not held back from taking leadership, whether it’s on initiatives or projects that I’ve been involved with. And no one would say that I don’t like to express myself. I like the challenge of being in the front of an organization or the front of an initiative and setting the vision.
What drew you to your current role as President and Executive Director of Global Health Council (GHC)?
Although we’ve been around since the 1970s, the previous board actually closed the organization in 2012 and the membership took over and relaunched the organization in 2013. That looked like just the kind of challenge that I enjoy, and really a chance for me to put my mark on the organization which represents actors in global health across the spectrum—nonprofit, for-profit, research, academia, philanthropy—and to help craft an organization that would be pertinent and influential for years to come. It was a bit of a leap into the dark because it was taking over an organization that was without resources. We weren’t bankrupt, but we were without resources, except a very determined Board of Directors. That was really exciting, and it let me do something that was an immediate, hands-on experience.
You are one of the few women leaders in healthcare. Have you ever felt hindered or discriminated against because of your gender, and if yes, how have you handled it?
When I was a young professional I was actively targeted by a male colleague who wanted to have what I was trying to do discounted, and made it very clear it was because I was a young woman, and he felt threatened by that. Over the course of my career, because I’m just really stubborn and stuck through it, and because I’ve had people really supporting me in the background, I’ve tried to take on—how’s the diplomatic way to say this?—a “screw you” attitude. I know how good I am and I am going to go forward and show how good I am and influence things for the better.
The Global Health Council launched a Women Leaders in Global Health initiative in November of 2015. What brought this about?
It’s coming from the Global Health Council but we worked with four amazing young professional women that are passionate about this to put it together. What we all came together around is that if you look at the global health workforce, it’s about 75% female. But, as with so many other industries, as you look at the presence of women and the voice of women going up the leadership chain, when you get to the highest levels in terms of global governance and national governance, and when you look at who is speaking on high-level panels and events and conferences, it flips completely and it’s more like 75% men. We started digging down a bit. If you look at who is on the steering committees putting together these conferences, again, frequently it’s male-dominated. There’s an inherent problem there because that means that already the global health field is limiting our talent pool, when we think about voices that we’re bringing to the leadership table.
What do you hope to achieve with the initiative?
It’s focusing on advocacy, pushing these messages, and providing tools around how conferences and events and steering committees can speak more proactively around making sure they have an appropriate gender balance. It’s going to be around networking, helping women connect with other women working in these areas, as well as mentors and leaders. Building up not an old boy’s but a dynamic women’s network, knowing how much influence those networks can have on somebody’s career path. Through target activities around those areas, we’re going to be working both in the US and to the extent that we can, globally, to be pushing this idea and making it more visible.
And I assume you’ll continue partnering with passionate people on this?
Yes, we’re not going to be doing the work necessarily ourselves. GHC is an organization that is really committed to the idea of connecting advocate and actors, facilitating conversations, and providing opportunities for engagement. We’re really going to be looking out broadly at the different initiatives that are taking place. We know there are things out there going on, but they are not necessarily well mapped or well connected, and what we’re going to be trying to do is really build off of the individual initiatives that are already started and making them more powerful by bringing them together to create momentum.
What advice would you give to women starting out in their career?
Don’t assume the path is going to be linear. And don’t hesitate. You have to take risks. You can’t hold back till you’re ready. There is no perfect time.
What was your first job?
Scooping ice cream. I think that everybody in the world should work at least once in the service industry, because it teaches you so much about people, and about working quickly, and being responsible, and dealing with jerks.
If I googled you, I still wouldn’t know…
I’m a long-distance runner and that keeps me sane.