Gender and the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research: Five things that stood out

This blog discusses five things that stood out in relation to gender at the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research.

Rosemary Morgan and Kate Hawkins

13 December 2016

As people with a profound interest in gender and health systems, it was a pleasure to attend the recent Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver last month. Here are some of the things that stood out for us from the conference.

1. A stream dedicated to equity, rights, gender, and ethics, substantially increased the focus on gender

This year the conference had a dedicated stream focused on equity, rights, gender, and ethics, which substantially increased the focus on gender within the conference. Our analysis showed that gender was mentioned 73 times in the program, as compared to 29 in Cape Town. In addition, we found that 11 sessions included gender, as compared to three in Cape Town. We were also delighted to see gender being a key focal point within the Emerging Voices programme – with gender being a main theme in the online discussions prior to the conference as well as the project itself. Having a dedicated stream on this issue increased attention on gender should become a permanent feature in future symposia. However, when we do a quick search through the Vancouver Statement that came at the end of the symposium, we don’t see gender mentioned once (although intersectionality is included). This is despite a rapporteur team working diligently to ensure that all the sessions were captured. It makes us wonder how these statements are formulated and how particular issues in our world become prominent.

Number of sessions which included gender

2. A focus on intersectionality

Intersectionality emerged as a key theme within the conference. The Thursday morning plenary discussed intersectionality as a research approach to understanding and promoting resilience and responsiveness in health systems. Intersectionality was analysed in a couple of Global Health TV interviews with TK Sundari Ravindran and Sally Theobald. Intersectionality was also highlighted in a paper by Sheikh et al. just before the conference titled “Privilege and inclusivity in shaping Global Health agendas”. Despite this focus, there is still the danger that intersectionality gets compressed to the ‘diversity’ agenda, rather than tackling the root causes of white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity etc. (E.g. kyriarchy).

3. Only a few unfortunate manels

Prior to the conference, Women in Global Health published their Event Organizer’s Checklist, which highlights the importance of having gender diverse panels. We were happy to see that there were only a few unfortunate manels at the conference, and when these did occur, they were quickly called out on Twitter. We even saw explanations being made on Twitter as to why a particular panel only appeared to be a ‘manel’ – as the female presenters were coming on next. Participants were also actively asking on Twitter how we might be able to avoid the trap of the #allmalepanel? As one participant rightly said, “Men lose too, because the focus shifts from their content to gender imbalance”. Throughout the conference people were invited to write down on flipchart what the best part of the symposium has been for them – we were heartened to see that one participant wrote “gender equality”.

4. Increased informal networking creating a ‘gender buzz’

This year we saw a number of gender networking events and activities during the conference. From a gender networking meet and greet hosted by Women in Global Health and RinGs, to badges proclaiming “I’m here for the gender analysis”. Karina Gould, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development even proclaimed that Canada is pursuing a feminist and rights-based agenda to health. As a result, throughout the conference there was a sense that feminist members of Health Systems Global didn’t feel as alienated as in previous years.

5. Recognition of how power plays out in health systems research and beyond

Within health systems research we continue to see an increased recognition of how power plays out. Within some of the Thematic Working Group (TWG) discussions, for example, there was a push that the TWGs attend to and respond to a lack of representation in their make-up and agenda. A board member explicitly stating during the conference the need to decolonialize our work supported this. Discussions were also held in the Teaching Health Policy and Systems Research TWG about how power and privilege manifests within health systems teaching. In the weeks leading up to the conference the Emerging Voices posted a blog about visa headaches and inequalities in attending global health conferences. There continues to remain a need for more people to be vocal about these issues, especially if the organizers in Liverpool for #HSR2018 are to have a chance to react and adapt for the future.