Women of Excellence Afro/Caribbean Series

Deputy Director SHEro, Sarah Hillware, on Advocacy

By: Calbeth Alaribe, Lilly Khorsand

Advocate for women and girls? Check.

Social entrepreneur and founder of the award-winning non-profit, Girls Health Ed? Check.

Two-time TEDx speaker? Check.

Former World Bank consultant? Check.

First black woman Deputy Director at Women in Global Health (WGH)? Check, check, check!

Sarah Hillware, a multi-generation African-American woman, overcame a plethora of personal trials over the course of her life; ultimately, paving her own path to success in global health and advocacy in the past 11 years. Her life experiences have built her character as a down-to-earth, fearless, and passionate advocate for issues at hand. Sarah’s unyielding determination to progress the health of women and girls, has culminated in her status as a leader.

“For me, it was never about becoming a leader for the sake of being a leader. Leadership is something I fell into, because I knew that there was a problem and I wanted the problem to be solved, whether I was the one leading or not.”

During her time as a leader, she has made incredible contributions. They all highlight her most exceptional quality: her voice. Like many influential black women — Serena Williams, Maya Angelou, or Michelle Obama — Sarah is a voice to be heard through which she promotes self-advocacy, knowing ones’ worth, and intersectionality. Advocacy and intersectionality are intertwined and inseparable — particularly when we are looking to elevate the black community and people of African descent.

“Being a woman of color carries tremendous barriers but they often start long before a woman enters the workforce. When she is in the stage of deciding a career path, she is already at a disadvantage.”

Research over the past few years has shown us that women are much more likely to sacrifice or ‘adjust’ their careers for their families. Additionally, there is a very clear gap between the earnings of women versus men. Black women need to be highlighted more frequently in the conversation because the numbers reflect a much more severe impact on them. The legacy of slavery and its social and political aftermath took a toll on the black American community’s financial ‘know-how’ and left mental scars through intergenerational trauma. It also led to the rapid incarceration of many black individuals, particularly black men, which created a divided family, and left many black women as single mothers — approximately 67.9%. These events, coupled with a number of other systemic issues, placed many black women in the lowest wage bracket — earning 61 cents to every $1 of a white male counterpart. The role of intersectionality when advocating for women of African descent is crucial because black women face a number of confounding factors, which add additional weight to being a woman and ‘being black; therefore, thwarting their prospective success.

Women in Global Health (WGH) spoke to Sarah Hillware about the importance of gender and racial equity in leadership, how the legacy of slavery has negatively impacted the black community, as well as the role of intentionality and intersectionality when advocating for women of color. The representation of women of color as health leaders, like Sarah, is still dismal. By the year 2025, we are calling for the percentage of women from diverse backgrounds (including low- and middle-income countries) in top leadership in global health to increase by 25% globally.

Scroll below for interview highlights — read the full interview here. The highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

On what motivated her to become a leader:

For me, it was never about becoming a leader for the sake of being a leader. Leadership is something I fell into, because I knew that there was a problem and I wanted the problem to be solved, whether I was the one leading or not. Sometimes when you want something done, it’s not always the best idea to give it to someone else because they might not get it done. You can always collaborate with other people, which I did a lot of. I wanted to make sure that this was executed and implemented in the way that I knew was needed. So, I became a leader because I was passionate about something and I wanted to make sure that someone worked on those issues.

On the importance of gender and racial equity in leadership:

Because you can’t have feminism that isn’t intersectional. Feminism and intersectionality have to be one in the same and can’t be unlinked. If you try to address gender issues without also addressing race and class issues, you’re not going to get far. I think it’s really important for us to remember that feminism is not feminism unless it’s intersectional because you have all these other factors that determine whether someone ‘can be equal’.

On the challenges to becoming a leader of color:

“Being a woman of color carries tremendous barriers but they often start long before a woman enters the workforce. When she is in the stage of deciding a career path, she is already at a disadvantage.” The world is a different place than it was in 1950, but there’s still such a long way to go. We still have to address those barriers and have really honest conversations about why these barriers exist before we can address them. Unfortunately, when you bring up these issues with people in power, there’s still discomfort and that’s something we have to get over to achieve progress.

On her one liner/motto to other women leaders:

Listen, advocate, elevate. First, listen to women of color; second, advocate for the work of women of color; and third, elevate women of color into leadership positions by funding our organizations!

On COVID-19 and its effect on communities:

Women carry the additional burden of comprising 70% of the healthcare workforce which puts them at a higher risk of infection. Even with men at home, emerging evidence shows women also still take on the majority of household activities and childcare. This is having a number of effects: Women are having to slow down career progression, and are facing higher degrees of mental stress and exhaustion. On the other hand, intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence has increased globally during periods of quarantine, and provision of reproductive health commodities and menstrual health items have been impacted globally.

On race, gender, and pandemics like COVID-19:

As leaders, we need to ensure that we are collecting data in a way that reflects the complexity of diverse communities. All data should be disaggregated by sex, but also by age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and more. This is critical to inform the global response. The other thing that we can do is vote! Currently, we have an underfunded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). We need to vote for leaders who believe in science, who will invest in and commit to building strong healthcare systems before, during, and after pandemics.

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