Dr Ann Aerts on supporting women leaders in global health.


Despite the important role played by women in the everyday management of health care, their voices are still under-represented in global health decision making. Dr Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation, spoke to Elmien Wolvaardt about her passion for supporting women leaders in global health..


Why should we focus on women leaders in global health?

Women in global health are key. In fact, they are critical, for example, in low and middle-income countries, where they make up 75% of the health workforce, but occupy just 25% of the leadership and decision-making positions. The situation is similar in high-income countries: in the United States, for example, even though 84% of global health students are female, they occupy only around a third of all faculty positions. In the World Health Assembly, the world’s highest health policy making body, just 32% of the delegates are women. This needs to change if we are to overcome current and emerging challenges in global health.

What are these challenges?

There is rapid urbanisation with ever-increasing inequities in health, for example with cardiovascular disease.  We have a rise worldwide in non-communicable diseases: heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders and diabetes. At the same time, we have still a challenging agenda with regards to infectious diseases and mother-and-child health.

What is the impact on women in low- and middle-income countries?

Worldwide, women face a higher burden of disease than men. In low- and middle-income countries, they are also responsible for making difficult decisions about household spending on health care, for example balancing the cost of food against the cost of medicines. It is therefore important that women’s experiences and realities are taken into consideration when designing policies and programmes.

Did you face any challenges in your career because you were a woman?

In fact, I didn’t really think about whether I was a woman or not! It is true that some things are tough when you are a woman, such as working as a doctor in dangerous situations like conflict zones. However, I never felt that I wasn’t being taken seriously in my role as a global health leader overall.

What would you say to women working in global health?

Women who consider a career in global health should feel absolutely equal to men. We have to be taken seriously because we represent half of the population in low- and middle-income countries. We have to make the voices of the women living under these conditions heard and we also have to support the female health care workers. This is what drives me - we have to make sure that women are heard and that they are adequately represented.

What is the Novartis Foundation currently doing about women in global health?

We constantly identify and support women leaders in global health. For example, in Mongolia there is a woman doctor, Nara Dashdorj, who is transforming the health system in her country. She is making hepatitis treatment possible, and is now leading our initiative that addresses the problem of cardiovascular disease in the urban population of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Why are you involved in the Women Leaders in Global Health conference?

I think this conference for women leaders in global health is a great opportunity to speak much more about women’s needs and experiences in the context of the overall global health challenge. We have an opportunity to highlight all these great health care workers who are women and leaders in global health in low- and middle-income settings; this is exactly what I feel the conference will do.

Dr Ann Aerts will be speaking at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2018 in London. For more information and to book tickets visit our 2018 Conference page.


About Dr Ann Aerts
Dr Ann Aerts has been Head of the Novartis Foundation since January 2013 and plays a key role in devising new policy recommendations. The Novartis Foundation is committed to exploring innovative solutions to public health problems and has the challenging goals of expanding access to quality healthcare and eliminating diseases such as leprosy.

About Elmien Wolvaardt
Elmien Wolvaardt is the Editor-in-Chief of the Community Eye Health Journal, an international publication for health workers, clinicians and policy makers responsible for eye health and the prevention of blindness in low- and middle-income countries. The Journal is published by the International Centre for Eye Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is distributed free of charge in print and electronic formats, in three languages, to over 23,000 readers in 134 countries, thanks to the generous support of charitable organisations and foundations.

Chris Howard