South Africa’s healthcare sector is on the frontline fighting both Covid-19 and the numerous diseases and chronic conditions that place such a burden on the most vulnerable in our society, especially women.

“South Africa’s female medical professionals, policymakers and businesswoman in the healthcare sector are therefore crucial in building a sector that best serves the development goals of our country and uplifting women in particular,” stated Julia Taylor, the National Medical Sector Head for Investec Private Bank South Africa, in her opening remarks at the Women in Health panel discussion, which forms part of the Investec initiative Women Behind the Mask series<>.

According to Taylor, achieving these goals will require strong leadership as well as close collaboration among industry stakeholders.

Various female leaders joined Taylor in sharing insights regarding their and the industry’s efforts in combating Covid-19 and on women’s participation in the medical sector.

Speaking on the latter, Phumeza Langalibalele, Founder and MD of Mlungisi Healthcare, states that the sector remains structurally unbalanced, with men still dominating senior leadership positions.

“Men also take home more than their female counterparts, even when the jobs they perform are the same. We have a long way to go to close the gender pay gap and improve gender diversity in leadership roles, particularly in listed healthcare companies.”

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the first female National Chairperson of the South African Medical Association (SAMA) and a practising doctor, affirms that females remain underrepresented in leadership roles, but that women make up a larger proportion of frontline workers operating at the industry coalface.

“However, the progression of their careers, especially in the public sector, is often limited. While the private sector offers more opportunities, not every female can advance her career. And those who make it into top leadership roles are often stigmatised as being too emotional to make good decisions, or we’re labelled as pushy if we’re assertive.”

Within this environment, women have to balance softness with firmness and tenacity to ensure no one walks over them, suggests Dr Coetzee.

But Covid-19 has disrupted the status quo in the healthcare sector and created opportunities for women to excel and prove their ability to overcome adversity, believes Prof Ncoza Dlova, the Dean of The School of Clinical Medicine and Head of the Dermatology Department at the University of KZN.

Prof Dlova cites her efforts to pivot the university to online learning as a prime example. “As an institution, we came up with numerous ideas and different ways to address the challenges we faced, particularly with regard to the university’s clinical medical students, who have to examine the patient on the clinical platform. However, we were able to find solutions for all our students at the School of Clinical Medicine Nelson Mandela, who continue to blend studying at home and engagement on the clinical platform using PPE.”

Female entrepreneurs like Ponani Shikweni, Director of Alexander-based women’s sewing cooperative Hluvuko Designs, also used the pandemic to create opportunities.

“When Covid-19 hit South Africa, we started making cloth masks. This helped us grow the business and employ more women. This has empowered them at a time when many families are struggling because of unemployment.”

Hluvuko Designs has also started making PPE such as gowns, mop caps and shoe covers to make the most of every opportunity amid the crisis.

“Every woman should find ways to help inspire other women, especially the youth because there are many ways we can help South Africa,” concludes Shikweni.

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