The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed health care systems around the globe and pushed health care workers past the breaking point. Emerging disease threats, coupled with a growing, aging population, will demand more trained health workers than ever before. Despite the essential role these frontline workers play, there is an expected shortage of 18 million health workers. It’s a gap that will urgently need to be filled to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in low- and middle-income countries by 2030.

Any discussion about strengthening capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to future health threats — just like any discussion about achieving the SDGs — requires a focus on the vital role that frontline health workers play. And any discussion on supporting the needs of frontline workers needs to start with addressing gender gaps.

Research shows that gender discrimination, segregation, and stereotypes cluster women in lower status and lower-paid roles such as nursing, while men are more likely to work in higher-status, higher-paid roles such as performing surgery. Many women health workers must contend with unsafe work environments or face violence or sexual harassment, and many are excluded from decision-making. Women comprise 70% of the global health workforce but hold only 25% of the senior roles. And women shoulder the vast majority of home care for children, the sick, and the elderly — unpaid labor worth an estimated $1.5 trillion.

An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Women in Global Health summed it up succinctly: “In general, women deliver global health and men lead it.” The hardship is taking a toll on women: Recent studies found 43% of nurses in the United States and 36% of nurses in the United Kingdom are considering leaving the profession at a time when the world cannot afford to lose expert health workers. Such persistent, harmful gender inequity not only disadvantages women health workers but also weakens health systems, undermines global health security, and impedes progress toward gender equality at all levels.

Read the full article about gender equality in healthcare systems by Kate Dodson at United Nations Foundation.