March 7, 2023

Why we need women leaders in science and research

IAVI and WomenLift Health explore why investing in women’s leadership development in science is beneficial to global health research.

International Womens Day 2023 IAVI WomenLift

This International Women’s Day, IAVI and WomenLift Health are partnering to highlight the importance of increasing women’s leadership in science and research. While there are ongoing global efforts to create more such opportunities, gender disparity persists. IAVI and WomenLift Health share a commitment to creating opportunities for women in science and believe in investing in and empowering the next generation of female leaders in the field.

There is a solid body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of women’s leadership. For example:

A shared commitment

In 2021, IAVI’s ADVANCE program launched the Leadership Development Program (LDP), with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to help position early- and mid-career African and Indian scientists to take on leadership roles. Through the LDP, ADVANCE aims to enhance gender equity by providing structured opportunities for mentorship, training, and support. More than half of this year’s LDP cohort are women (14 out of 25). The same year, ADVANCE launched a technical working group — compromised of IAVI, the Center for Family Health Research in Zambia, KAVI Institute of Clinical Research, the Aurum Institute, UVRI-IAVI, and WomenLift Health — to help minimize barriers to and identify opportunities for women in science. The program’s overall goal is to try and close the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) to ensure that women can fully contribute to research and innovation. A needs and gap assessment conducted in 2022 will inform the development of a curriculum by the technical working group.

With the Leadership Journey program, WomenLift Health works toward achieving their mission to expand the power and influence of talented women in global health and catalyze systemic change to achieve gender equality in leadership. This year-long program is designed to provide mid-career women leaders with the safe space to develop their authentic leadership style, an inclusive and diverse network, and tools and strategies for enhancing their influence. Participants of the Leadership Journey engage in learning, mentoring, and coaching sessions, as well as immersive experiences and a self-directed leadership project. The goal of this work is to create a network of talented women leaders around the world beginning with India, East Africa, and the U.S., and provide them with a safe space for independent and collaborative learning to deepen and elevate their leadership impact.

Together, IAVI and WomenLift Health have the potential to further accelerate women’s leadership in science.


Reflections from women leaders and trailblazers in global health

How does the world benefit from having more female leaders in science? In your opinion, what is one thing women leaders uniquely contribute to the scientific field?


Dr. Marianne W. Mureithi

Dr. Marianne W. Mureithi

Chairman, department of medical microbiology & immunology and senior research fellow/lecturer and team leader at the KAVI Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR), University of Nairobi; graduate of the first Leadership Development Program cohort

Increasing the number of female science leaders is crucial, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a significant gender gap in access to education and opportunities. There are numerous advantages to having more women in scientific leadership positions, including:

i. Women leaders in science serve as role models and mentors, inspiring and empowering other women and girls to pursue careers in science and technology. By eliminating the gender gap in science and technology, we can assist economic growth and development.

ii. Addressing global issues: Women science leaders can be vital in addressing global issues, such as sexual and reproductive health needs, climate change, food security, and public health. Their distinctive perspectives and knowledge can aid in identifying innovative solutions and accelerating progress toward a more sustainable future.

iii. Women leaders contribute unique and diverse scientific research and innovation perspectives. This diversity can result in novel ideas and approaches to scientific challenges, improving outcomes.

iv. Increased collaboration: Women leaders are often skilled at establishing and maintaining solid relationships, which can improve scientific cooperation and teamwork. This may lead to enhanced research and innovation.

As a female medical microbiology and immunology scientist at the University of Nairobi, I provide a distinctive perspective to research on HIV vaccines and solving the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. I am also committed to improving women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health care in the region, which is crucial to developing healthy communities. Working in a university, I feel privileged and happy to inspire and instruct future generations of female scientists and to assist in closing the gender gap in the science and technology industries. By removing gender bias, encouraging innovation and creativity, and promoting gender equality, we can accelerate progress toward a more sustainable and fair future for all.


Dr Norah Obudho

Dr. Norah A. Obudho

Health integration and East Africa director, WomenLift Health

The world benefits from having more female leaders in science as they bring in lived experience, collaborative, and inclusive approaches in their work that simply expand the general knowledge in any field in STEM. Female leaders in science add value in research by bringing in more creativity arising from their social and public good approach to challenges, and this leads to innovation. This then becomes easily adaptable and can be scaled up in any environment with minimal contextualization processes. Female leaders in sciences also tend to pass it forward, mentoring and raising future scientists, leaving no one behind and in appreciating that they do not occupy space forever. Having more women leaders in science is key to inspiring women and girls everywhere, through the role modelling effect. More female leaders in science, in positions of leadership bring stability and sustainable growth with exponential societal impact. Having more female leaders in science at the decision table will also improve STEM-related policies with multi-level systems changes.

Women leaders uniquely contribute to the science field through their collaborative and transformative leadership where science is approached with an authentic, inclusive, ethical, and with impactful end in mind for communities and for public good.


Dr. Kawela Mumba Mwangelwa

Dr. Kawela Mumba-Mwangelwa

Co-principal investigator and study physician at the Center for Family Health Research in Zambia; Graduate of the first Leadership Development Program cohort

When women are given the opportunity to lead in science, they bring a unique perspective that is invaluable to the field. This is not just a matter of equality; it’s a matter of unleashing the full potential of science. Women leaders in science bring a fresh perspective to the field that is essential for driving innovation and progress. Their diverse experiences and backgrounds allow them to approach scientific problems in unique ways, leading to new discoveries and innovations. Additionally, women leaders in science are often excellent communicators, capable of expressing their ideas and collaborating effectively with others.

Furthermore, the presence of women leaders in science can serve as inspiration for the next generation of women in the field. By seeing women who have overcome obstacles and risen to leadership positions, young girls and women can be motivated to pursue their own dreams and achieve success.

Overall, the unique perspective that women leaders bring to science is essential for creating a more inclusive and equitable scientific community. We must work toward providing equal opportunities for women in science to take on leadership roles, recognizing and celebrating their contributions, and inspiring future generations to follow in their footsteps.


Terry Kigundu

Terry Kigundu

Senior facilitator, East Africa, WomenLift Health

The world population consists of 49.5% of female, therefore for any transformation to take place women must be part of leadership and decision-making processes. Women’s participation in science can be seen as an indicator of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Women’s participation is therefore a necessary condition for gender justice and democracy as well as ensuring that women’s perspectives, new discoveries, and diversity are reflected in innovation.

In my own thoughts, the benefit of female leaders in science is no different from other sectors and economies. Female leaders in science must be part of the teams that are conceptualizing, creating, testing, and delivering innovations to develop products and technologies that are inclusive, hence serving the entire population. Having more women in leadership roles in science implies that there are different perspectives at the decision-making tables, hence better outcomes for all.

Female leaders are powerful catalysts of social change. They tend to be more human centric, value relationships, which in turn yields more results through the creativity, innovation, collaborative and participatory nature. These unique styles of leadership bring more success in science, as they tend to foster more cohesive, engaged, and effective teams. Female leaders also are more likely to influence systematic, structural, and societal changes, inspired by their own lived experience of breaking the glass ceiling.

In my own opinion women leaders bring transformational leadership that aims at long lasting impact. Women leaders are more authentic, empathetic, inclusive, collaborative, and strategic. They lead with purpose, fuel the much-needed resilience, inspire others to take action, influence, lead change, and play a key role in developing others through intergenerational mentorship and coaching.