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Nikki DeAngelis leads the development of novel cancer treatments and the next generation of women scientists.

ounds to treat cancer that we’d usually call drugs or medicines. Nikki’s role is overseeing the development of potential new medicines, from initial lab work through clinical trials to widespread use for patients in need. 

It is perhaps an unusual role for someone who, as a young college student, first showed interest in biology-related fields like sustainable farming (which she studied on an academic trip to Africa). Then again, Nikki’s story demonstrates that a woman’s search for her true calling may often take unexpected twists. You can read about it in these highlights from her interview with World Woman Hour.  


Q: What led you along the journey to where you are today? 

Nikki DeAngelis: Growing up, I loved school and my parents were both educators, so I knew that I would be a lifelong learner. In high school, I took a biology class, and from that point on, I was hooked because science is cool! 

In college, I pursued a degree in biology. But the first physics and calculus courses were really a struggle for me, so I went to my advisor to get some guidance. He told me that if I was not doing well in math and physics, I should consider another career path. I was devastated and frustrated by the lack of support and ended up taking a leave of absence for school, to try to sort out what I would do next. Fortunately, I had some amazing women around me to lift me up and say “You can do this.” I ended up completing a degree in biology, with the right support system around me, and going on to get a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institutes of Health.

Sadly, while I was there my grandfather passed away from colon cancer. He’d been a very important person in my life. Watching the physician-scientists help enroll my grandfather in clinical trials sparked my interest in pursuing an advanced degree, to try to create therapeutics that could help other patients. I went on to get a master’s degree in Bioscience Technology and started working in a pharmaceutical company as an intern, doing drug discovery. That’s where my passion for working in the oncology space really picked up. So, while working full time at Johnson & Johnson, I decided to return to school once again to earn my Ph.D. and studied immunotherapy to help cancer patients. 

From there I continued to progress within the company—and that’s how I came into the position I am into today. 


Q: Could you share what you’ve learned about dealing with failures and setbacks?

Nikki: One thing I want other women to know, who are thinking about going into the sciences or any career, is that there is no one correct or linear path. Often we are faced with adversity or failure, or we need to take a break for our mental health. And if that happens it doesn’t preclude you from going on to do amazing things. It’s important to take the time to take care of yourself and then set your sights on what’s next.


Q: Is there a particular failure or a particularly challenging time you’d care to tell us about? How did you manage your way through it?

Nikki: The definition of what we perceive as a failure varies from person to person. I will speak openly about one of mine. At the start of my PhD program, I was married with a small child. About a year into the program, I went through a t a divorce. At that time, I really felt that I was failing as a mom, because I had had a different image of what it would look like for my son as he grew up.

Often we don’t talk about our family life or personal stories at work, or they kind of seem separate from your career. But when I was in the middle of all this—the divorce and raising my son, while starting a Ph.D. and working at Johnson & Johnson, too—I needed the support not only of my family and friends but also of my co-workers.

At first, I felt a bit nervous about sharing what I perceived as my failure in life. But as I started talking to my female colleagues at work, they really helped to pick me up. They said “You can do this. Don’t you dare give up on school. We have your back, whatever it takes,” and they showed up for me in so many different ways which ultimately helped me to achieve my goals.

For me, the biggest lesson was just not being afraid to share what was going on in my life,. No one’s perfect and nothing is perfect. And when I finally graduated, my son gave an amazing speech about what it was like to witness his mom doing all of that schoolwork as a single mom in addition to work, and that he was so proud of me and the life we created. That was about the greatest reward I could ask for. 


Q: What can be done to increase the representation of women in science and innovation?

Nikki: In the field of drug discovery and development, we’re continuing to see a strong representation of women working in the labs as researchers or lab managers. And we’re starting to see improvement in women advancing beyond those levels, to research directors or higher, but we have not yet reached equality in the higher-level roles. . So I think the biggest need is in that area—identifying women, early on, who have potential to move to higher levels and helping them to progress in their careers with support and mentorship. When I was working in the oncology lab, 10 years ago, I really wanted to see more women in leadership roles. At the time there was only one female vice president in my organization. So I formed an oncology women’s mentoring circle, where we created an environment to share our experiences and support each other’s personal and professional growth. And we’ve seen great progress over the years. We have increased the number of women in the VP seats, and we need to continue to build the next generation of female leaders.


Q: How do you see the future of medicine developing? Especially in terms of the roles that women can play? 

Nikki: In the future, I would hope to see diverse teams, led by strong female leaders who encourage creative thinking and embrace risk-taking to solve scientific problems. I think that when we have diverse perspectives, we can come up with the best creative solutions for patients who need them.

. Black and Hispanic women are underrepresented in science jobs. It’s critical that we support Black and minority women both in scientific research and in clinical health care, so that when  girls enter the medical or science field, they can see themselves reflected and know that they belong

As part of our Oncology Research and Development Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council at Johnson & Johnson, we are helping to prepare the next generation of leaders through programs like fellowships and internships to support Black and Hispanic medical students and future scientists. In addition to fellowship and internship programs, we are focused on building a pipeline of talent across all levels of career development. I am proud to lead our High School Outreach Initiatives to help introduce science careers to students. Girls who are introduced to science at an early age—and who see that science is cool—can help us transform the future of medicine. 


Q: Finally, your best advice to girls and young women just starting out? 

Nikki: Don’t let anyone else define you. Or tell you what you are and are not capable of. I was very fortunate to have a mom who told me that I should never live my life for anyone else and just to continue to believe in myself. Failures and setbacks will happen. How you respond to them is what will define you.

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Medical researcher Dr. Macaya Douoguih is a global leader in vaccine development.

major scientific efforts while also helping to increase the representation of women in science. For these reasons World Woman Hour, in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson, honors Macaya as one of 60 women leading change in the world. Here are highlights from her interview with WWH.


Q: Could you trace your story and tell us how you came to be where you are today?

Macaya Douoguih: I decided that I wanted to be a doctor when I was about 10 years old. I was very much influenced by visits to Africa as a child, where I saw the impact that infectious diseases could have on people’s lives. During my medical training I grew interested in tropical diseases, which led me to clinical research in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where I became more and more interested in prevention. Career-wise, I was trying to figure out what I could do that would have the most impact on unmet medical needs.

And so my foray into vaccines began with the tuberculosis vaccine foundation called Aeras.

That led me to The Netherlands, where I joined the biotech company Crucell, which also was focused on meeting unmet medical needs and developing vaccines against diseases like HIV, Ebola and malaria. Then Crucell was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, which put me into this organization. What’s nice about working here is that our missions are aligned on developing products that improve lives and save lives. I’m very proud to have been part of the licensure of our Ebola vaccine regimen, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine, which has received emergency or conditional use authorizations in over 100 countries and regions throughout the world. .


Q: Vaccine development is leading-edge work. For other women who might choose a career that’s really challenging, what advice can you offer on dealing with setbacks and failures?

 Macaya: Well, in my field, there’s always the possibility of failure. You have to be prepared for that and accept it. But you’re going to learn something from it. You’re gaining more experience and maybe you can apply the lessons that you learned, to get closer to the goal you’re trying to reach. We’re always trying to identify the best vaccines or drugs to treat patients, and sometimes those failures are necessary to help you figure out what to do next.

I think if you know what your goal is, that’s very important. For me, it’s to develop interventions that save lives. So that motivates me, and I also keep that goal in mind as I process a failure and decide how it might affect my work.


Q: Given what you know today, would you advise your younger self to do anything differently?

Macaya: I would have to say no. You know how when people travel back in time in TV shows or movies, if they say or do something, it could change the course of the future? I’m very happy with how my career has gone, so I think that whatever choices I made were the right ones. My advice would just be to continue being me.


Q: What are some of the most pressing issues for increasing the representation of women in science and innovation?

Macaya: I think representation is improving and continues to improve. We’re seeing more women taking leadership roles in research and taking a larger role in driving innovation. One area we could work on is that kids, both girls, and boys, need to be exposed to science and math from an early age. In the U.S., at least, that’s not always happening consistently, so engaging kids with science and math would hopefully influence their career paths and help to get those numbers up. Getting more women into entrepreneurial positions in science really requires stimulating that interest early on, so there’s a lot of effort going into that now.


Q: Could you say more about these ‘entrepreneurial positions’ and why they’re important?

Macaya: There are certain sectors where it’s been more challenging for women to get into positions of leadership. One of them is securing venture capital for an innovation, to grow it and to bring that innovation out to people. If women are not getting those opportunities, it becomes very difficult to be a leader in that space, so what’s needed is a mixture of opportunity and preparation. Having different kinds of experiences and professional background is what helps you to innovate. I think more women are gaining that experience as people are starting to recognize the value of diversity and inclusion in the workspace.

As that occurs, you’re going to see more and more women filling leadership roles in driving innovation. And I think it means we will see more and more groundbreaking discoveries that are saving lives or just changing the ways that we do things in our lives—whether it’s a digital technology, or a medicine, or any innovation you can imagine. So it’s happening; I think it’s improving, but again there are some areas that need more work than others.


Q: What drives you to increase diversity and inclusion in science? And what, specifically, can you do to help?

Macaya: Well, I’m a woman and a person of color. I know very well what the challenges are. I want to have every opportunity to fulfill my career dreams and aspirations, and I think everyone should have that opportunity. Now that I am in the position I’m in, I can help to level the playing field. I can make sure that I have the balance that I want in my department. I can ensure that the women are paid as much as men, and have the opportunity and ability to influence things. This is very important to me, and I’m happy to be able to effect these changes.


Q: For girls and young women who want to put their best foot forward, right now, what would be your call to action?

Macaya: To do what you’re passionate about. I think people find their direction when they’re involved in something that they absolutely love. And so, identifying what that is will then be the compass.


Q: Finally, what would be your message to the world at large?

Macaya: I would like to comment on lessons learned from vaccine development during the COVID-19pandemic. I think one thing we’ve all learned is that we can accomplish so much through collaboration. The development of multiple effective COVID-19 vaccines that are saving lives, in a process that took under a year, is a historic achievement. I’m proud to have been a part of it. And it was just amazing to see what could be done when everyone aligned to get it done—from the U.S. government and other governments around the world, and the regulatory agencies, to all the people that we’ve worked with.

I think that is a testament to what you can accomplish by working together. In terms of innovation, I think it shows that as long as you’re aligned on a common goal, anything is possible.

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Nigerian change-maker Damilola Ogunbiyi  leads UN-backed global group Sustainable Energy for All

ight: 400;”>At present, as Damilola points out, about 760 million people—one-tenth of us worldwide—have no regular access to electricity at all. They are held back in every respect, without the opportunities or the healthier, fuller lives that many enjoy. In a related problem, even more people—about 2.6 billion, particularly women—aren’t able to practice “clean cooking.” They prepare meals over fires made by burning whatever is at hand, often inhaling toxic smoke that damages their health and leads to early mortality. And yet another challenge is providing uninterrupted power to places that are on local electric grids. In many developing countries, power outages are frequent. Damilola has worked to assure that key institutions, like hospitals, can keep running reliably. 

Damilola’s home country is Nigeria: the largest in Africa and, as she noted, the country with the world’s largest “energy access gap.” After studying at the University of Brighton in England and starting a career in construction management, she returned to Nigeria to concentrate on energy. She was the first woman to head the Lagos State Electricity Board and then moved up to the national government, becoming the first woman to direct Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency. Her successes prompted the U.N. to come calling; she was named CEO of SEforALL in 2020. 

In Damilola’s interview with World Woman Hour, she conveyed a mixture of intense passion and calm, friendly personal focus that often marks a true leader. Here are the highlights. 


Q: In your journey so far, Damilola, have you seen yourself as a standard-bearer for women and girls in developing countries? 

Damilola Ogonbiyi: Very much. I have wanted to show a different aesthetic of what an African woman can bring to the table. I want to encourage African girls who might not have had the upbringing and the opportunities that I was privileged to have, and more importantly, to showcase what hard work can get you.


Q: Now, could you tell us more about your work with energy issues at SEforALL?

Damilola: We try to make the point that lack of energy is not just an inconvenience. Energy is life itself. Most of us have never grown up without it, so we take it for granted. Some people have panic attacks when their phone dies, but try switching off everything—no heating, no water, nothing—and see what life is like. We’re talking about not being able to live a dignified life. And it’s more than that. 

Once, in Nigeria, I had just done a project where we gave [uninterrupted] electrical power to a baby hospital in Lagos State. When I came for a follow-up, I expected them to say, you know, “It’s great to have electricity so we can work longer.” But a nurse said, “Do you understand what you’ve done? If the power cuts out during an operation, it only takes seven seconds for the mother or baby or both to die.”

Maybe you never related energy access to infant mortality, to saving people’s lives, yet that’s what we’re trying to do. So the point is that energy is not a nice-to-have. It’s a difference between life and death for millions of people.

The other issue is not having access to clean cooking. We’ll say “Yeah, indoor pollution is bad,” but it is killing 4 million African women every single year. And it’s still not seen as a crisis. So those are the types of things that really get me, that really motivates me.


Q: What are the solutions to these problems?

Damilola: There are three main parts. The first is a policy and regulatory framework that allows you to use clean energy resources, decentralized energy, to provide power to everybody within a country. But that cannot be achieved if you don’t have enough money. So we need an incredible amount of money worldwide, not as much as what was used for Covid, but in the region of hundreds of billions of dollars going into solving this problem. And then, just the political will for countries to come together and do it.

We have the [technical] solutions. We have solar and wind technology; we have the battery technology right now. We don’t have to wait for hydrogen and all these new, exciting projects. They will come and they will reduce pricing and increase innovation. But we already have the tools to provide everybody universal access by 2030. We just have to do it, if we want to achieve our climate goals by 2050.

And it’s not only about providing energy. It’s what the energy will be used for. It really is the fastest way of getting people out of poverty; we’ve seen it firsthand. So I’m truly excited about what will happen when this program starts making headway. People have started taking notice that it’s not just an energy problem; it’s a health problem; it is a food problem. Energy is at the heart of everything we do. So it’s important that different sectors come together and say “How do we learn from each other to resolve this?” The political powers in many countries need to put this at the top of the agenda, so they can not only achieve energy for all, but also achieve their agricultural goals, their health goals, and generally have healthier people and a healthier generation.


Q: Let’s talk about personal and career issues. Do you have any specific advice for young women who are starting, or thinking about starting, a very ambitious career like yours? 

Damilola: Be careful of your support system. Make sure the people around you really support you. And if you’re thinking about marriage, make sure that you’re marrying for the person you want to become, not the person you are at that time. 

I say this sincerely. I have moved halfway around the world to do my work, and it would be wrong for me to make it seem like I’m always happy and everything is always together. That’s not how it is at all. There are times when it’s a really lonely role. It’s very important to have a good support system to keep you going in times when it can get to you and you wonder “Why aren’t people understanding?” I wouldn’t be able to give it 100% without my support system, especially my husband and my children. They have been amazing.


Q: In terms of developing one’s own qualities, can you name a key personal trait that you believe has contributed to your success?

Damilola: I don’t do comfortable. If I’m not scared about something, I probably wouldn’t do it. If it’s not nerve-racking and I don’t find it a challenge, I won’t do it. It has to challenge me. All the roles that I’ve been in, it’s because they have looked impossible. And that’s what has gotten me through them—knowing that there are a lot easier roles in life, but it’s very hard to see myself being anywhere near them.


Q: Could you share what you’ve learned about dealing with setbacks and failures?

Damilola: I think it’s important to be OK with not being OK. That’s a cliche, but it’s important to realize that you’re not going to know everything, and to not get down on yourself. We women, by default, are very hard on ourselves. I’m extremely that way, and it’s not always necessary or constructive. You just have to take the lessons learned. Even with some big, heart-wrenching things that have happened to me in my career, I need to take them as lessons and think, how am I going to improve?

I’ve also had to learn about listening to and understanding the person I’m speaking to, instead of assuming that they don’t know much and I need to tell them everything about energy. It’s important for me to say “Look, what point of view are you coming from? I want to know what you are interested in.” Then I can change my approach to suit that. 


Q: What can be done to bring more women into a field like yours, at higher-level positions? 

Damilola: As women, we have to actually support other women in who we hire, who we mentor, and how we bring people across. I’ve met some women I was hoping would be mentors and they haven’t been. If anything, they have hindered growth because they wanted to be the only one on top. That was very disappointing for me, and it is why I’ve always made the effort, because I want other women around me. 

Also, it’s a responsibility for the other women that we bring up not to mess up, so we don’t look bad. I think it’s important that we explain that to each other—that you’re getting an opportunity, but it is also a big responsibility.


Q: What does leadership mean to you? 

Damilola: Leading, to me, is about challenging yourself, about getting outside your comfort zone. It’s about showing people what you can offer to the world and not being afraid to show them. Sometimes you might succeed and sometimes fail, but all the lessons come together to make you a better person.

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Dr. Nathalie Massin, expert in reproductive health, leads advances in fertility treatment and information

nt-weight: 400;”>A graduate of Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, she is president of FFER (Fédération Française d’Etude de la Reproduction: the French Federation for the Study of Reproduction), and until recently served as president of France’s Society for Reproductive Medicine. Nathalie is also known for advancing scientific and public debates over infertility prevention and testing. 

Dr. Massin’s clinical base is the Créteil Intercommunal Hospital Center, in the suburbs of Paris.  As head of the Reproductive Medicine Department at Créteil, she has pioneered programs to make fertility counseling and services more widely available. In addition she is an associate professor at UPEC, the University Paris-East Créteil. Here are edited highlights from her interview with World Woman Hour. 


Q: What brought you to this field, and why are you passionate about it? 

Nathalie: I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was nine. It was a shock when I felt my mother was going to die bad pneumonia. The second shock I had was in my second year of medical school, when I saw my first embryo through a microscope, and then the transfer in the uterine cavity of a woman who was trying to have a baby for years. I knew at that time that I wanted to be a reproductive specialist acting for women’s health. Reproduction is one of the main parts in the life plan of a woman. It impacts the well being of women as well as their children. 


Q: You have advocated for education about reproduction and fertility, both in schools and for adults. Could you speak to why this is important? And perhaps point out some things that are not widely known? 

Nathalie: Women need empowerment. It can be provided by good information about all the things they want to have in their lives, and one of the most important things for a woman is having a baby. Fertility education for both boys and girls, as well as information for young people, is empowerment for creating the life they want—including a child, if and when they want. 

For example, oöcyte cryopreservation could deliver women from the pressure of the inevitable decline in fertility with aging. I want women to be aware of what is possible in terms of reproduction, so that they can make more informed decisions to help them to plan their lives.

The new generations want more and more to plan their lives, and while society puts a lot of pressure on women to conceive a child, the chances of success are unfortunately getting lower. There has been a global decline in birth rates, mainly due to the postponing of the desire for pregnancy to a later age. Today, women are studying more and improving their socio-economic situation. They also still feel young at a higher age, but they are exposed to a decline in fertility as time goes by. This can be aggravated from prolonged exposure to substances that are endocrine disruptors, which cause damage to both women’s and men’s fertility.


Q: What does the future of health care look like to you? Will women play more of a leadership role in the system; will there be advances in reproductive care?

Nathalie: The future is already here. In the last two decades, the health care community has changed a lot in France. Women are taking more and more positions, but still usually lower positions. However, women patients can now choose a female health care professional, and this can make a difference for them. Overall, with more women in the health care system, there is more empathy and more patient-centered care, and this is welcome for both men and women. 

Also, France has made a big step with the evolution of our policies. Since September 2021, female couples and single women are now allowed to have access to fertility treatment, as equally as heterosexual couples. So no woman is left out in the journey of being a mother, when we now face a global decline in birth rates.  


Q: What changes still need to be made? 

Nathalie: We put a lot of pressure on women, actually, but we need men to take responsibility. First, because they are a big part of the postponement of having children. It’s not only their partners who delay this. And second, because men are directly involved in the cause of infertility in 50% of cases. So we will need to change our way of thinking. Reproduction is not only a woman’s program. Men are important to support reproduction in our modern families.

And it has been proven that young people and adults’ lack of knowledge of fertility is an issue, for both men and women. Also, I have been overwhelmed to see that in access to health care around the world, women and girls are disproportionately impacted by lack of resources.


Q: Looking back at your career journey, could you share some personal lessons you have learned?

Nathalie: During my journey I learned it’s difficult to be a woman in a man’s world, and to be at the same time a good mother and a professional. This means that you have to put your best foot forward in your agenda every day, so you really need to be passionate about your work to get the opportunities you deserve.

Persistence is important, too. After I raised my children and developed my reputation in a public hospital, when I finally asked to become a university professor, I was told I was too old to run for it. It was really disappointing, and although the answer was not what I was looking for, in fact I felt empowered to take action and go further. I developed a school for advanced training in ultrasound for female fertility evaluation, in addition to a university diploma. I took national action with health care associations, and eventually I became the president of the Society of Reproductive Medicine and now President of the French Federation for the Study of Reproduction. 

The lesson is not to give up. When you’re passionate about something and listen to your intuition, you will find a way to do what you want.


Q: Dealing with setbacks or failures is certainly important. Are there particular challenges you have faced in the area of providing good health care for your patients? How did you deal with these? 

Nathalie: After 15 years of reproductive medicine, I was still upset about our failures, especially when I met couples who came too late or others who waited three or four years before having access to fertility treatment. Moreover there are simple and non-invasive tests that can be done with some techniques. When we created a fertility checkup for women with my colleagues at Centre Hospitalier Intercommunal de Créteil, we worked rapidly and understood it made a difference. Every acknowledgement we receive from women who need advice on their own reproductive potential, in view of their personal plan of life, convinces us that this is the right way to empower a woman.

Q: Speaking broadly, could you name some ways in which women can lead change for a better world?

Nathalie: Women can lead change for a better world by giving the same education to boys and girls.. Women have a key role in general for children’s and adults’ health, starting at conception, and we need to inform them  


Q: Your advice to young women in any field, at any stage of life? 

Nathalie: Go ahead and ask for what you deserve. Don’t forget, you can ask for help. Throw away the unfair judgments you are facing. And above all, don’t forget about yourself.

Q: What could they do right now to make a difference?

Nathalie: If you are a young woman or a young man, you probably will ask yourself if you want a baby in your life. One of the important things is to get information early in your life about what it is to have a child and the problems you can have. Conceiving a child is mainly something that happens naturally, but sometimes not, and there are many things in life that can postpone a pregnancy. So it’s important that you have all the knowledge about fertility you can, to make your life like you want—with or without a child.


Q: If you had a billboard that millions of people would see, what message would you write on it? 

Nathalie: I would write, “Knowledge and a healthy lifestyle go hand in hand when it comes to fertility.”  

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Dr. Anne Connolly is a trailblazer for women’s health care in inner-city areas

> has led efforts across the United Kingdom to improve women’s health care in deprived urban areas. Starting with her own work as a physician in Bradford, England, she expanded the campaign by building out a U.K.-wide network called the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum. For this she received a prestigious award last year, the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), given at the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours. World Woman Hour in collaboration with Organon now honors Anne as one of 60 women leading change in the world. 


Q: Anne, how did you come to do the work you’re doing. Can you trace your story for us? 

Dr. Anne Connolly: When I was very young, I was in a car accident and had to spend a couple of months in hospital, so I got a fascination for health care. Later I was lucky enough to be able to go to medical school, where I started to be interested in women’s health care. Once I had qualified as a general practitioner, my husband and I went to work in a mission hospital in rural Zimbabwe. I looked after the women’s health and maternity sections of the hospital. It was there that I really started to understand the awful experiences that many women had to tolerate, when they didn’t have access to good health care and when they also had to bear the main burden of care for their children and families. 

Then, back here in the U.K., we’ve worked for the last 35 years in inner-city Bradford. Bradford has a very rich culture and it’s very diverse, but there are many people who are very deprived. I wanted to continue to develop my women’s health skills so I took on extra training for that. And, in the out-of-hospital setting, I was fortunate to be supported by local clinicians and local teams so that we could really start to deliver care that was right for the women in the community

It then became obvious that what I was doing for my own patients also needed to be done across the whole system [in Bradford]. And then it became apparent that many other clinicians around the country had this passion for women’s health. Knowing how under-resourced and undervalued women’s health care has been, we saw that we should start a network. The network would give support, deliver education, and help us to improve the care that women were getting in their own local settings. So two of us developed the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum, which now has something like 12,000 members of various multidisciplinary teams.

We have nurses, doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists—whoever wants to improve the care of the women in a local environment. We’re now invited to strategic decision making on a national footprint. And we’re starting to make a difference in the quality of care that women get, where they want it, closer to their homes. 


Q: Can you say more about the passion that drives you, and where it comes from?

Anne: I think it comes from recognizing the inequality that exists for women, when you look at the health issues that we can have compared to the care that’s often provided. We have the responsibility for reproductive health. We have periods that come every month, and for many women, that’s a big problem if they’ve got painful periods or lots of bleeding, which can impact their chances with education, or with jobs and opportunities. Then we get to menopause, and we have to go through the symptoms of that. So there’s a real inequality for many women, if they can’t understand that maybe it’s not normal to have certain symptoms, or that they can get help that will allow them to function better in the workplace and in their families. 

And it’s more than that. Within deprived communities, there’s the inequality of being a woman, and there is also an inequality within the inequality. Looking at myself, I can navigate hurdles because I’ve got a car; I can speak English as a first language; I’ve got access to the internet. If hurdles are put in my way, I can get around them. But there are many women who can’t. 

So my passion is to make sure that all women get the same opportunities in health care. I want them to understand that if something isn’t right, to get early help, and then to understand the choices of what they can do with that help. That’s why the passion is to develop local services, and to upskill local clinicians—and it’s not just about the doctors. Many times it’s about the nurse, or the health care assistant, or the administration team or the social support network. It’s about all of us working as a team to deliver the right care for the right person, at the right place and the right time. 


Q: What are some difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? How did you deal with them? 

Anne: I realized that it was important to become part of the decision making process about where public finances would be spent and how to improve local services. And you can’t do that unless you are part of the committees that are making those decisions. It’s not my favorite role. I much prefer to be doing the clinical work. But I joined the local decision making board and spent many hours discussing concerns that actually are not my passion. Then I constantly had to try and raise issues about women’s health, which is under-prioritized but so important—because if we get it right for women, we get it right for the families and for the system. 

And many times, I would hit a barrier. I would bring a proposal and the answer might be “Well, we don’t have extra funding for that. It isn’t our priority at the moment.” But I had learned from those women in Zimbabwe that it’s important to be resilient. So I’d go back to work with the team, or we would talk to other members of the committees, and then I’d come up with another proposal or another way of looking at it. And again I might get knocked back. But the fight was so right that we kept going.

Nationally, we now sit on committees on behalf of the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum, and we constantly raise the importance of making services right locally. Not just in the specialist units, but locally where women really want to go at their first port of call. Because that is where we can understand the complexities of the populations we work with—recognizing that we might get our services right for one group of the population, but it needs to be slightly different for another group. 


Q: Could you share a key lesson or lessons you’ve learned? 

Anne: One is that passion doesn’t get you everywhere. My passion often got the better of me, particularly in the earlier days of my career, before I learned how to be more strategic. Sometimes the “bull at the gates attitude” is off-putting for others, and you just get knocked down and then you take it personally, which is never great. If I was starting out again, I think I’d be more reflective on the advances we’ve made, and how better to navigate some of the negotiations that are so important to make the improvements that you want. 


Q: Looking ahead, what are the main improvements needed, and how can we get there?

Anne: Women’s health care needs to improve in a number of ways. It’s been under-resourced. The needs of women have been under-recognized, and health problems specific to women have been under-researched. There has to be comparative esteem for women, so that the care they get and the recognition of their needs is the same as for other health care concerns. 

Not only are women half the population, they carry the burden of reproductive health, and they are generally the main supporters of family life and bringing up the next generation. So we know that getting a woman’s health right is not just right for that woman. It’s right for everyone around her; it’s right for the social system, and it improves her opportunities within the system. The effects are holisitic, and we need to be better about recognizing the holistic care that women need. There’s the physical well-being, the social well-being, and the psychological impact of having women’s health concerns. 

And here again, it’s not just about the doctors and specialists. Women are much more likely to discuss their issues with a nurse or health care assistant, or another member of the team. They might want to test out the problem they’re having before they decide that it’s big enough to go and bother the doctor. So, at the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum, we acknowledge the need for multidisciplinary teams. We know that each of us can bring something to the table. And we always recognize that we are much stronger as a team than going out as individuals to try to change the world. 

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Divya Kaur is an emerging young leader in an important new field: data. 

ps://”>Accenture’s Applied Intelligence Group is to help them use and understand data. 

Data science is an important field with uses in all kinds of organizations—from business firms and nonprofit groups to scientific labs and public service agencies. They all try to study information that could point to better ways of doing their jobs. Modern computing technology makes it possible to sift through huge amounts of data and detect patterns leading to new insights or practical solutions, which is where Divya comes in. Together with her teams at Accenture, she develops software to crunch the data and even show the results in easy-to-read visual displays. 

Divya started her schooling as a young girl in India, then finished high school and earned a college degree in the U.S. What’s remarkable is that she had no formal education in digital technology, but has accomplished much by learning constantly—especially from the women around her. Here are highlights from her interview with World Woman Hour.  


Q: Could you tell us about the journey that brought you to this field and this career?

Divya Kaur: The journey to my current role as a data analytics and visualization specialist was not a conventional one. When I went to school at USC I majored in economics, because that’s just something I was interested in. I also did a minor in user experience design, which helped me in my current role, but there was no way it related to a tech background, so transitioning to a technical role was a very hard journey in itself. I was placed on my first project as a data visualization specialist. I knew my UX background might help me design the final solution, but I didn’t know how to build it out, using any technical skills, so I had to learn a lot about SQL and Tableau [common software tools for that purpose].

Having a female manager was a huge support. She guided me through her process and how she started her career; how she used to involve herself in projects. She would share tips on whatever technical resources I could learn and also share her perspective, as a minority female in tech. So it took a combination of mentorship, a lot of hard work and learning in my own time, to transition into the role I am in today.


Q: Are there particular challenges you face in your job?

Divya: We start with a lot of client-facing work, so you have to be at your A game all the time. It’s not an internal project; you are in front of your client and you’re taking on leadership roles. It can be hard putting up that face when you’re simultaneously learning on the job as well. So balancing the two has always been tough, but I think I do a pretty good job. Having good mentors really helps. I can set up one-on-ones with them whenever I have questions, and when we work together as a team we try to be supportive of each other.


Q: What could be done to bring more women into the field and have them participate more equally?  

Divya: I have a threefold answer to this. First, the workplace needs to place emphasis on things like hiring equal numbers of men and women, and making sure there is equal pay. Accenture has a commitment to have an equitable workforce by 2025, so there should be a 50/50 balance of men and women, for those who identify as having a binary gender.

Another step is having good female mentors in the workplace, and really working with them. That means using them as a guiding force, sitting in on important conversations they might be having, and making sure we have a forum to express our ideas and have them taken into consideration when it comes to decision making.

The third step is getting rid of more exclusive language and terminology —the “bro speak” that tends to exclude us in certain situations. We need to make sure we are not using any kind of unconscious bias, and an important way of doing that is to use inclusive language in our meetings, email and documents.


Q: If you could go back in time, is there advice you would give to your younger self?

Divya: Don’t let the impostor syndrome stop you from doing something. [This is the insecure feeling that you’re not really good enough, that you are just an “impostor.”] When I was applying to colleges in my junior year of high school, I didn’t think I was capable of applying to the schools that were my top choices, so I didn’t. Instead, I spent two years at a school that was not an ideal fit for me and then transferred to USC when I felt I was ready, and I think that put me two steps behind where I could have been. 

So after college, when the chance came to transition from a non-technical to a tech role, I was really mindful of making sure that I didn’t stop myself from doing it just because I felt like I wasn’t ready. I talked to the mentors and managers around me who had made that switch and I think that played a key role in my decision to just go for it. 

Men tend to apply for jobs that they might be underqualified for, but women think a lot about applying to jobs that they might even be overqualified for. So the advice is to make sure you’re talking to the right people, and not to stop yourself from doing what you want to do.  


Q: Any thoughts about dealing with failures or setbacks?

Divya: Definitely there were failures and setbacks when I was switching into a tech role from the non-tech space. But I didn’t let that stop me. I was always talking to my managers and setting myself up for the change. There were times when I wasn’t able to build out a technical solution, but the more I was able to talk about it, and the more I shared, I was surprised at how many people were willing to help me.


Q: Are there practical benefits to having more women in fields like tech? What is gained by including women; what is lost without their presence? 

Divya: I feel excluding any gender or any human from any kind of experience or project is a loss in itself. It’s really important to take everybody’s opinion into consideration, because it helps the team develop a shared vision, and in the way, we communicate and deliver to our clients. So, having a female perspective is definitely important. We also come from a more human-centered approach in the way we solve things. 

Whenever I work on a project, I’m very conscious of making sure that everybody feels heard and seen on how we can use their skills to the best of their abilities. I think when you use that human-centered approach, it plays a key role in the value you’re able to deliver. Accenture’s pledge to gender parity plays an important role in my human-centered approach.


Q: In your view, what does leadership consist of? 

Divya: Leading, to me, is humility. It’s being compassionate and empathetic in the way we deal with our teams. Leadership comes in many forms, but when we are starting a project or anything new, putting ourselves first doesn’t help anyone. For example, when I start a project, I try to put my team in a room together and ask them the right questions: Do you understand what we are trying to achieve? Are you aligned with the shared goal? What skills do you think you can bring to the table? Understanding everyone in this way really helps us move forward in the right direction.


Q: What advice do you have for girls or young women who want to take action, right now, to start advancing themselves? 

Divya: Opportunities won’t always come walking toward you. It’s important to go chase them sometimes. So, take that leap of faith. Surround yourself with the right people, the right mentors, and go for it. 

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Sylvia Thun, digital medicine expert, works with big data to make a big difference in health care

in this field, and for being a champion of efforts to see that women are better represented in it. 

Sylvia’s work has to do with the uses of data. Many advances in health care are based on data that shows, for example, which treatments tend to work best for the people who have a particular health problem, or what the best preventive steps would be. This data can be gathered from many places around the world: from the results of scientific research, from the clinical trials of new medicines, from hospital records or any other kinds of statistics and records related to health. Sylvia will tell you more about this vital work in the following highlights from her interview with World Woman Hour

Her current title—a very prestigious one—is Professor of Digital Medicine and Interoperability in the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité, a renowned German hospital. She holds degrees from the Aachen University of Applied Science and the medical school at RWTH Aachen University.


Q: In fairly simple terms, since most of us are not experts in digital medicine, could you describe the nature of your work and some of the problems you’re trying to solve?  

Sylvia: I’m working within the field of interoperability, which means that computers and the people who use them want to talk to each other. You need a lot of technology and informatics experience, and you have to know the domain you’re working in. My domain is medicine, so I help doctors and scientists get more data. 

We work together in a worldwide community to establish international standards in this field, so that we all get data on a fair basis. [The data should be] findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. And in my opinion, this data should be a public good, so that we can share our scientific work all over the world. Especially right now, in the pandemic era, we need to work together to help the world in this field.

The challenges are that we often cannot share data, because of the many hurdles. You have data security and privacy issues, which are different in different countries. You have to work together with industry, and industry has its business models, so we scientists have to explain why we would use the data. We have to cooperate and not all people want to cooperate. 


Q: You have become known as a leader on women’s issues in your profession. In your view, what are some of the most pressing problems that women face in health care? 

Sylvia: Women are facing many challenges. They are often the primary care-parent or caregiver. Often they live in poverty, or they have poor housing; they don’t get enough food. And even in Germany there are many single parents, mostly women, who have to take care of the children and cannot really work, so they don’t have enough money for health care services. So this is one part. 

A second part is that most health care workers are women, but these women are not in leadership roles, so they do not have the decision-making power. And there are many women-focused diseases, which affect women uniquely or disproportionately, but which scientists have not focused on because they were not seen as so interesting for this scientific domain.

And a newer problem is unconscious bias within the data we use. Women are underrepresented in data and in clinical trials. 


Q: In other words, if women react differently to a certain medicine or condition, would the data fail to show it? How does that happen? 

Sylvia: If you want to do the science to develop a new treatment, for instance, you have to have data out of clinical trials. And even in the very early phases of a trial, where they test on mice or other animals, they prefer to use male mice because they are cheaper and they don’t have the hormonal circumstances of a female. That is a decision not to be aware of gender, so the data is wrong. Then upon this data you do more trials, with a larger group, and with humans.  And there is gender bias in this group as well, because they prefer to use men who are about 30 years old. Often you get such data from wearables, for instance, or innovative clinical trials where they use data from soldiers in the U.S. They are working on data of which 94% is from men.


Q: Could you tell us a bit about the new global network that you are involved in? The one with the hashtag name, #SheHealth?

Sylvia: It’s about women. This means that all people should be involved in e-health and digital medicine and they should work together. Right now we have more than 500 scientists within our community. We try to find solutions for the gender pay gap, for instance; for women to be more visible in this field, and to have better data with no bias.


Q: In the best case, what do you think the future of health care will look like?

Sylvia: It will be very exciting for all people in the world. We will see a rise of personally tailored health care and digital health. We will have more prevention opportunities. There will be precision medicines to help to cure cancer, and immunizations against cancer, for instance. And we will have better management of chronic disease by working with applications on our smartphones. In my opinion, each person should have their own personal EHR [electronic health record], but first of all we need birth certificates for all children in the world, and we are working on this at the W.H.O. [World Health Organization] level. 

Overall, I think people will get more empowered as patients. They will have better health literacy, so they understand their body and physiology better in the future.


Q: How will your life’s work fit in? And what will it take to get to this brighter future?

Sylvia: I’m passionate about interoperability and solving problems with digital health solutions. I want to heal patients with new technologies. I want to fight pandemics and help to work against cancer and prevent chronic diseases. The important thing is that we should do this as an international community. We have to be aware of international organizations like the W.H.O., which tries to fight these diseases. We have to collaborate. We must all work together.


Q: What are key steps for improving the status of women in digital health? 

Sylvia: We should have gender equality in leading project positions, and within organizations. We need more role models in this field. One really important issue is equal pay, so we should have transparency of salaries. And we should evaluate recruitment for gender bias and unconscious bias as well.


Q: What advice would you give to young women about embarking on this career—or any other career they might choose? 

Sylvia: My advice is to do what you love and love what you do. You should not think about money. It is a reward and not a goal. Success will flow if you’re not thinking of money, but of the goals you have in your life. I would like you to go out, be brave, and believe in yourself.

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In women’s health, Dr. Maas gets to the heart of the matter: gender-specific care for women’s hearts.”>Dr. Angela H.E.M. Maas, a cardiologist and PhD-holding scientist, is prominent among those who’ve been working to change the situation. Over her career she has introduced new medical practices, contributed research, fought resistance, and networked globally to promote female-specific cardiology. Angela is co-author of the Manual of Gynecardiology, a textbook for health professionals, and also the author of a new and highly readable book for everyone, A Woman’s Heart: Why female heart health really matters.

Currently Dr. Maas is professor of cardiology and Managing Director at Radboud University Medical Centre in The Netherlands, her home country. In an interview with World Woman Hour, she told the stories behind a quest that continues to this day. 


Q: How did you become involved in this work? 

Dr. Angela H.E.M. Maas: My father was a general practitioner and from my early ​​years on, I always wanted to be a doctor. I was trained in cardiology in the Netherlands in the 1980s—and it was a bit strange during my training. The standard patient was the male patient. And when I began as a cardiologist in 1988, I realized that I couldn’t answer the questions of my female patients properly. They would ask me often, “What is the reason for my symptoms? Why do I have chest pain?” And I didn’t have the appropriate answers.

Then in ‘91, the first scientific publications appeared saying that there may be differences between men and women with heart disease. So it all fell together about 30 years ago—the questions of my patients, the publications in the medical journals—and I started to read everything that was published, and I have been following this path since then. 

There are so many differences between men and women: in the cardiac vessels, in the heart muscle itself with aging, and much more. And yet still, after all these years, female patients are often treated like male patients. We have made a lot of progress in our knowledge but clinical practice lags behind. We need more education for the next generation of cardiologists, so they can learn how to practice with an awareness of gender differences. 

Also, the cardiology community hasn’t been very friendly for women. Not for female patients and not for women cardiologists, either. So we also have to change the culture of cardiology to make it a more women-friendly discipline. 


Q: Does this mean that your work ties in with larger issues of equality for women? 

Angela: Yes. I remember that when I began as a student in the 1970s, I was quite involved with the second feminist movement. I thought it was important for women to be economically independent; to have equal rights. And when I look back now, I think what I’ve done as a cardiologist is that I’ve incorporated women’s rights for equal health care in my work. Female patients have equal rights to be treated according to the current standards and current insights of cardiology. 

Q: You said that women’s heart care needs to be different from men’s because their hearts and blood vessels are physically different—but you also implied there are many other reasons. Can you explain some of those? 

Angela: We have to take into account that the life course of men and women is quite different. Women have pregnancies, of course, or they are treated for infertility. These kinds of events may impose a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Women also may have menopause at a young age or at a later age. And, with aging, comorbidities [the presence of two or more medical conditions at the same time] are quite different among men and women. Perhaps these are not exactly risk factors, but they are risk variables that also count for estimating their cardiovascular risk. 

So we have to look more at the whole context of our female patients, which is different than it is for men. This includes socioeconomic factors. We know that men still earn more than women, and that women often have a single-mom household with children. And when we talk about stress, the genders react differently to it. Stress imposes a different kind of risk in men and women. 

Over the past decade or so, we are seeing more myocardial infarctions [i.e., heart attacks] in women in the younger age group, between 40 and 60 years old, and these are different kinds of myocardial infarctions. They are not caused by atherosclerosis [“hardening of the arteries,” a common cause]. Instead they are caused, for instance, by facial spasms, or by dissection of one of the coronary arteries [the spontaneous ripping of such a blood vessel]. These kinds of myocardial infarctions don’t happen very often in men, so our society also imposes new problems for our female patients. 


Q: Other women leaders have pointed out that it’s challenging work to be a change-maker. Can you talk about difficulties or setbacks you have faced and how you dealt with them?

Angela: I have encountered a lot of resistance among my cardiologist colleagues over the past 30 years. It wasn’t easy to bring a new way of gender-sensitive cardiology into the outpatient clinic. I’ve had hate mail and phone calls. Some colleagues have even threatened me with lawsuits, saying that I didn’t treat my patients according to the male standards that we all had learned. 

But with ongoing progress in the scientific field, with more knowledge about sex and gender differences in cardiology, I’ve always felt the strength just to continue. Several times over the past years I also had a coach, a kind of therapist, to help me not to become frustrated. To keep on going with my goals and to help me to get my life’s work done. 

I’ve also learned a lot from my colleagues abroad. We now have a very big network of female cardiologists in North and South America, in Asia, and in other places who are joined together in the Women As One organization. Women As One is a virtual network started some years ago by a few cardiologists from the U.S. and France. It’s very motivating to be in contact with each other, to support each other, and even to write papers together to bring important messages to the public and into the cardiology community. We also raise money for the younger generation, to fund fellowships to support their research projects. So by joining together, as female cardiologists, we are bringing health care for women to a higher level.


Q: In addition to having healthy habits, is there anything that we women can do to help improve our cardiac care in the future? 

Angela: An important change we have seen in women patients themselves is that by using the internet, they have learned to ask more questions, and they ask very good questions. We need them to be more involved with the choices that we make in diagnostics, in treatment, et cetera. So patient involvement in the future will be helpful, and also home monitoring, for instance of blood pressure. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor and it is a deadly risk factor. So women can help themselves to diagnose hypertension—especially women after hypertensive pregnancy disorders. These women are at elevated risk to develop hypertension at a young age. 

The point is that women can help their doctors to establish the most appropriate diagnosis.  We now need to collaborate better together, doctors and patients, and to discuss what is good or what’s not good to do. 


Q: Finally, what advice would you give to younger women entering the health and medical professions today? 

Angela: To younger cardiologists or doctors, or to any women, I would say: Try to learn. Throughout your whole life. By learning from others—as well as from papers and books, and from education—we can influence our current society, which is still quite male-oriented, in positive ways. 

Also, read books about women and what they have accomplished. You can learn from the lives of other women. We ourselves can inspire other women, too, even women who live around the world in places far away. 

And for women who are already in the health fields: There was a report from the World Health Organization in 2019 showing that about 70% of the workers in health care are women, but less than 25% of the leading positions are held by women. So I would say to every woman in health care, that if you can get a higher position or a more leading position—just go for it. You will manage. We need more women in the higher positions, to change the culture and also to drive changes in clinical practice. In order to change things, you need power.

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Prof.Dr Marleen Temmerman leads the change for women’s health and rights  across different continents and on many fronts. 

babies to approximately 18,000 women … and that is far from all. 

In Kenya, where she has spent key parts of her career, Marleen did pioneering research on HIV/AIDS with a focus on how the virus impacts women and childbearing. In Belgium, her native country, she founded the Ghent University International Centre for Reproductive Health (which now has branches worldwide), and served as a Senator in the national Parliament. Marleen also held a high post at the World Health Organization, directing WHO’s global programs in Reproductive Health and Research. She has been back in Kenya since 2016, at the Aga Khan University in Nairobi, where she heads the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health. 

That’s quite a track record for someone who, in her university days, had a professor tell her that a woman shouldn’t study to be a gynecologist. As Marleen recollects, “He said, ‘You will have a family, who will take care of the children?  Why don’t you do something you can do from 9 to 12 so that you can dedicate your time to your family?” As it turned out, Marleen was able to be a wife and a mother while also forging a remarkable career. She believes that women’s health and women’s equity must go hand-in-hand — a view she advocates with good humor but with firm conviction. Here are excerpts from her interview with World Woman Hour. 


Q: Could you tell us a little about your life’s journey and how you came to be where you are now?

Dr. Marleen Temmerman: As a young girl I was always interested in sharing things and asking questions. Why is there so much inequity? Why do some people have more than others? I was passionate about solidarity and fighting inequity and it actually became the Leitmotiv throughout my journey. 

I wanted to go to the university, which was not often done by girls from the middle class back then in the seventies so I had to fight to convince my parents to allow me to go. Then later, after I finished my training in gynecology, I was intrigued not only by how best to care for the patient but also by health systems in operation so I undertook graduate studies in public health. 

I was invited by a good friend, Professor Peter Piot [a renowned microbiologist], to work with him around a strange disease that had come up in the 1980s. He was looking for somebody to join a research team in Kenya. My dream had been to go to developing countries and there was a need to study this new disease, HIV/AIDS. The research question at that time was, can women be infected with the virus, and if so, can it have an impact on pregnancy and on the baby? I went to Kenya, together with my husband, and although we have lived in other places since then, we kept going back to Africa, to Kenya and Mozambique over the years. And now here we are again in Kenya, where I’m leading the research center in Women and Child Health.  

Q: Why are you so passionate about solving problems for women, especially in health care? 

Marleen: It’s really working with women in all aspects of life, throughout their life course—young children, adolescent girls, pregnancy, family planning, older women. And whether you look at it from a health perspective or a rights and equity perspective, there is still a lot to be done. 

Think of the area of reproductive rights. Can you imagine that it was only in 1994, less than 30 years ago, when the world for the first time even agreed on the terminology of “reproductive rights”? On what it mean for a girl or a woman to have the right to decide how many children she wants, when, and with whom? It’s so basic. And yet 30 years ago we had to fight for it.

Even now, in many parts of the world—like here, where we live—for a lot of girls it’s only a dream. 

So progress has been made, but a lot needs to be done. And that’s why every day I love to continue this work, along with many wonderful partners, allies, colleagues, and friends. 


Q: It’s often said that women are disproportionately affected by health problems. Why is that so, and what are the solutions? 

Marleen: When you look at sexually transmitted diseases, for example, it’s the women and girls who suffer more. STDs can lead to ascending infections and a lot of complications, including infertility or cervical cancer and other diseases that are treatable or preventable, but which are making a lot of victims in this part of the world. So it’s always the girls and women who are kind of badly treated—by nature, by society, by the rights and the agency they are able to have. Their health care is often provided by governments or religious groups limiting their access to health, education, and the ability to reach their full potential.

In many countries, education is still a problem. In Kenya, the new Constitution of 2010 includes that all children go to school. That has really had an impact, because now more girls are going to primary school and secondary school. They continue their education, they participate in the workforce, and that is the beginning of change. So, education and health are really key to achieving equity, and to the development of girls and women.

Q: Many times in your life you’ve had to fight to move forward with your career and your work. What have you learned about overcoming failures and setbacks?

Marleen: Falling down is not failure. It’s just a thing that happens. Failure is not standing up again. You just have to say OK, what can I learn from what happened, and how can I do better?

And not only “I,” but how can we do better? In order to change society, you cannot do it as an individual. You have to find your friends, your partners, your family, and think, how can we do it? An African proverb states “ it takes two to make a child and a village to raise a child” we are all part of that global village and together we can be the change!

To me, this is the most important point. It’s about us. How can we develop not only that one single woman or girl or boy, but do it together as a group, as a community? As a society, how can we do better?

Q: Can you share a story about “doing better” in this way? 

Marleen: It’s not a fun story but I would like to tell it. When I first came to Kenya for my research, in the 1980s, I worked in public health maternity here in Nairobi Pumwani Maternity Hospital. I lost my heart in that place. We had about 80 to 100 deliveries a day, in very difficult conditions. At the time, I was pregnant myself, so you look at things a bit differently when that is the case. And I was confronted with a young girl, 14 years old, who died on arrival. She had been in labor in a slum area, without anyone taking care of her until finally, somebody brought her to the maternity ward. She had a ruptured uterus. The baby had passed on already and we couldn’t save the girl, either. 

In my life I have done so many deliveries that I don’t remember them all. But unfortunately, I had 72 girls or women who died in my hands, so to speak: many from the complications of unsafe abortion, and many very young girls who should have enjoyed their childhood instead of getting pregnant. Those I will never forget. Of course, you can be sad about this. On the other hand, it has given me the motivation to say, “This cannot happen any longer.”

 So, for many years, I have been trying to change the systems—and again, not alone. In that same maternity ward where the girl died, health care providers, nurses, doctors, and everyone has invested a lot. And after all these years, in this particular facility, care has improved a lot. We still see some women dying but thankfully less frequently. In the past, we had at least two or three babies every day who didn’t survive, and now that is the exception. As I said, we are making progress but there is still a long way to g

Marleen: We need more women leaders not only in health care but everywhere….

One of the biggest problems is that so many women are still dying in pregnancy, in childbirth, abortion, or postpartum. Maternal mortality, as we call it, is really an injustice for girls and women. They need good quality care, but it’s not only about the care. They also need the right to use the care. Like here in Kenya, we see so many teenage pregnancies, with very young adolescents. We need to work for the right to avoid being pregnant when you are 13. The right to access family planning, sexual education—the right to knowledge. So, it’s more than simply health care. It’s the whole picture of equity and rights that has to be interwoven with health care.

Q: What can all of us do to help?

Marleen: I think that all of us can be part of the change. If you believe that women and men are equal, that we have the same rights, then fighting for the same rights for all individuals is something that all of us should contribute to. Whenever you see injustice, or a negative situation, don’t turn away from it. Keep on fighting for a better world. For girls and women, men and boys.

Q: One last question. If you could be said to have a superpower, what is it?

Marleen: My superpower is multitasking. Being somebody who works in a group, in a community. And somebody who doesn’t give up. Who doesn’t take no for an answer!

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On recovering from trauma: “Let yourself feel grief. But you’ve also got to find something good in the situation.” — Geralyn Ritter

derailed on a curve at high speed, flinging its cars sideways and turning Geralyn’s car into a crumpled heap. Unlike some passengers near her, she survived, but just barely. With shattered ribs, other broken bones and massive internal injuries, she had to be pieced back together in numerous surgeries over several years, amid constant pain.

Not until recently did she feel fit to resume professional life. And luckily an ideal opening came along. Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, USA, was spinning off a unit called Organon as a separate women’s health company. Geralyn is now Head of External Affairs and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) at Organon. Her interview with World Woman Hour provided up-close insights on personal trauma as well as career advice and healthcare issues.


Q: Could you start by sharing some of the main things you’ve learned about experiencing and recovering from severe trauma?

Geralyn Ritter: Trauma is very alienating. You wake up on an ordinary day and the next thing you know, your life will never be the same. And trauma recovery isn’t a straight line. I spent two and a half years in very intense recovery, but I’ve had multiple major surgeries since then, some of them on a no-notice emergency basis, some of them planned. But if I can be open about the challenges that I have faced, to stay strong during the ups and the downs, then hopefully I’m helping others as well.

Also, I’ve done a number of public speaking events—for church groups, for women’s groups, for disability rights groups. And one thing that always comes home to me after these talks is that everybody is dealing with something. Maybe they didn’t get hit by a train, but everybody has to deal with great loss or severe pain of some kind, at some point in their lives. I think the more that we are comfortable sharing those things—sharing the vulnerability, showing empathy—the better leaders that we can be, and the better that we can help each other through those times.


Q: If you could directly counsel someone who’s recovering from trauma or great loss, what advice would you give?

Geralyn: I would say two things. Number one is to let yourself feel grief. I think sometimes there’s pressure on women to smile through it and get right back at it. I learned the hard way that in trying to deny how I was feeling, I fell even harder when I did fall. Letting yourself be sad and regretting a loss is part of the process, and we need to give ourselves permission to do that.

But we’ve also got to find something good in the situation—some new opportunity that becomes available, some new memory that is unearthed, some new possibility. For me, as I started to recover, I was grateful to be at home every day when my three teenage sons came home from school. I had worked for pretty much their entire lives, and although it was not a joy to be on disability leave for so long, it was a joy to be there when they walked in the door.

Another example of finding something good is that I used to downplay the efficacy of practices like mindfulness and meditation. But as I went through periods of intense acute pain, along with long-term chronic pain, I opened myself to the idea that some practices that I had never put much faith in could actually help me. And it’s made a tremendous difference in my life. So it’s okay to let yourself feel grief, but you may also have to look hard to find something good in it— something new that could be a fresh beginning.


Q: Now here is a related question. Aside from your accident recovery, what advice would you have for younger women about dealing with setbacks and failures in their careers?

Geralyn: One thing I learned about avoiding setbacks is this. When you have a great idea and you really want to go for it, but there’s that little voice in your head that says “ooh, it might not work,” or “somebody might not think it’s my place to put this forward”—be bold and go for it, 100%. The analogy I like to keep in mind is that I was a springboard diver in high school and college, and whenever you’re out there on the end of the board trying a new dive, you can’t do it halfway. There’s no way it’s going to end up well if you take a little bitty jump and try to do a double flip. It’s 100% or not at all.

So in my work, while it’s obviously important to listen to input and feedback, I know that I can’t be like a tightrope walker who looks down and suddenly thinks, “Whoa, what am I doing here?” More often than not, if you trust your instinct and really follow through on an idea, you’re far more likely to end up with a great result than if you start to water it down or back away. I think that success means being bold. It means not letting temporary setbacks or fears or insecurities stop you from where you’re going

Q: Let’s talk about Organon and your position there. The company’s vision statement is “a better and healthier every day for every woman.” Could you share a bit about this focus and what it means to you?

Geralyn: Women’s health care needs have been insufficiently met, insufficiently addressed, and insufficiently appreciated for a very long time. In many areas of women’s health there has been tremendous unmet need, and zero new treatments introduced for decades. It’s as if some of these conditions—like menopause, which can be very disabling— are things that women are simply expected to deal with.So I am thrilled to be part of a new company dedicated to women’s health. My roles include leading outreach, leading efforts for public policy change, leading our corporate citizen citizenship efforts. I feel extremely fortunate and excited to be where I am.


Q: Zooming out beyond Organon, what changes need to be made in the health space generally to provide better support for women?

Geralyn: Access to health care for women is a systemic problem, both in the world’s developed countries and certainly in many less-developed countries, and women need to raise their voices. Increasingly they are, and increasingly they are being heard, but we have a lot of ground to make up. If you look at legislatures around the world, only a small percentage of parliamentarians are women. If you look at national health ministers, very few are women. So I think the starting point is that we recognize the unmet needs, speak out, and make sure that policy makers are listening.


Q: Any particular issues you’d like to see addressed?

Geralyn: I think we have a tremendous opportunity to have real impact on the problem of unintended pregnancies. Sometimes an unintended pregnancy is a joy, but often the woman is too young or the family is not financially prepared to care for the child. We can make a tremendous difference by helping women take charge of their family planning, so that children come at a time when every child can be best supported to live life to the fullest.

And   this comes back to why I’m excited to be at Organon. These issues are where my heart is.


Q: Looking to the future of women’s health care, are there dominant trends emerging?

Geralyn: I am optimistic that the future will be better, and I don’t think it’s going to take decades to get there. I think there is a growing realization that changes are overdue. There is also exciting scientific potential in new treatments, in digital technologies, and in telemedicine and innovative ways to deliver health care to women and girls. For example in many of the poorest regions of the world, there is still cell phone access, and a midwife who is having a difficult delivery might be able to text for advice to a tertiary hospital. So, combine all of that with women and girls raising their voices, and I see a future that is much brighter than what we’ve been seeing. It’s not automatic. I don’t think we can take it for granted. But I’m very optimistic.

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