Across the world, women are agents of change in the field of public health. But despite making up 70 percent of the global health workforce, women occupy only 25 percent of senior positions and 5 percent of top positions in health organizations, according to a 2021 analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO). This means that women’s insights are often excluded from health policy, funding, and research decisions. The WHO study suggests that this underrepresentation particularly impacts the health of women and children, who experience a disproportionate burden of disease and death worldwide, because women in leadership roles are more likely to focus on well-being initiatives and to prioritize the health needs of these vulnerable groups.
To empower more women to advance in global health—especially in low- and middle-income countries, where the imbalance is more pronounced—the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Women and Health Initiative created the Harvard LEAD Fellowship to Promote Women in Global Health in 2019.
Launched with philanthropic support from Jane Jie Sun, the yearlong LEAD (Learn, Engage, Advance, Disrupt) Fellowship enables full-time public health professionals to hone their leadership abilities, articulate their career paths and needs, and build a community of peers. A new gift from Sun will extend the program through 2023, fostering a growing network of leaders and mentors.
“We want to provide opportunities to encourage leaders in public health to help one another in a supportive network and ensure that more are able to benefit from research, skills, and leadership from Harvard,” says Sun, the CEO of Trip.com Group. “I have been the recipient of support from many great women, and it is vital that we keep this support network going.”
As the only female CEO in China’s online travel industry and one of a very small number of female CEOs in the Chinese tech industry, Sun is familiar with the scarcity of women in high-level roles. She also recognizes the crucial role of mentorship in her own life and career. In 1989, when she arrived in the U.S. as a visiting student at the University of Florida, one of her professors accepted her into his family, providing her with an instant support system and encouraging her to pay it forward. “His family changed my life and laid a strong foundation for me to give everything I can to the world.”
Sun’s philanthropic impulse is bearing fruit all over the world. Despite challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic soon after launching, the LEAD Fellowship has supported a dozen global health leaders from eight countries in its first three cohorts. “We have begun to see tremendous networks growing in the regions where our fellows are based,” says Ingrid Katz, faculty lead for the program and associate faculty director of HGHI. “They lead by example across sectors and have actively mentored female global health professionals. This investment will ensure that women move into key decision-making positions in global health.”
LEAD Fellows take a semester of classes across Harvard Schools and departments to explore their interests, working one-on-one with an executive leadership coach and two faculty mentors throughout the year. They are also encouraged to engage in speaking opportunities to share their knowledge; for example, the first two cohorts led a session on cultivating female leadership at the 2021 Consortium of Universities for Global Health conference. Participants are equipped to return to their home organizations to execute their unique personal growth and leadership plans.
“We want to support a global health system that is fair and fit for purpose,” Katz says. “We have been so fortunate to share this vision with Jane Sun. Our fellows see the investment made in them as an investment in an entire world around them.”