Xavier Prats Monné: The opposite of feminism is ignorance.
Xavier Prats Monné, until recently the Director-General of Health and Food Safety in the European Commission, spoke with Elmien Wolvaardt Ellison about what – and who – is standing between women and their success in global health leadership.
Why are there so few women in global health leadership positions, even in countries were women already have equal rights?
In countries in Europe, we do not have that many legal obstacles anymore. What we do have, rather than a glass ceiling, is a big fat layer of men standing in the way of women’s careers. There are also organisational obstacles, such as the difficulty of work-life balance. Something more difficult to quantify, but real – I see it in my work every day – is that there are women who are exceptionally competent, who should be extremely self-confident and put themselves forward, and they still are reluctant to do so. This is something we really should be fighting for.
Why are women reluctant to put themselves forward?
It is difficult to pinpoint, but it has a cultural nature. Faced with a challenge, women tend to have doubts about their capacity to meet that. In a professional context – in a meeting, for example – if a man has an idea he will say it, if he doesn’t have an idea often he will still say it too. A woman needs to feel comfortable in order to express herself. Health is not an exception, unfortunately. The result is precious few women in this sector.
Why does it matter that there aren’t enough women in global health leadership positions?
It’s a matter of equality and justice, first of all: we must not give fewer opportunities to half of the population. There are also pure economic reasons. To put it bluntly, why squander human capital? There are too many bright women who could give more to society if they were allowed to.
You come across as a champion for women. Why is that?
One hundred and sixty years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote an extraordinary book, called The subjection of women, that really opened my eyes.
I have a background in social anthropology and I know a cave man when I see one! I’ve worked on employment policy, education and health, and the evidence is so strong that women are discriminated against that it is very difficult not to see it and not to react to it.
To think that women have some sort of built-in handicap requires not just being a man, but being a fool! The opposite of feminism is ignorance: ignorance about the condition of women and the way women have been treated for so many centuries. The least one can do is to not contribute to that oppression.
Will it help if men get involved in meetings such as the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference?
It’s a very humbling experience for a man to be in a conference dominated by women. This is an extraordinary and exceptional experience for a man, but an everyday experience for a woman, which should tell us something.
The simple fact of being at a conference such as this is a lesson in itself. Beyond that, I think that it is very important for self-confidence and for confirmation of a just cause, that women get together and speak their minds – and do so loudly.
Xavier Prats Monné will be speaking at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2018 in London. For updates, interviews and features, keep visiting our website or follow us using the hashtag #WLGH18.
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.