What a privilege to have been part of the 2024 WomenLift Health Global Conference! It was an honor to have over 1,000 delegates from more than 40 countries. I can’t capture all my observations and learnings in a short article, but here are some highlights:

First, what delighted me. The warmth and the joy of human connection in our global health community. Seeing women and men allies bond across disciplines, sectors, backgrounds, and lived experiences. Dancing in a room full of women and men allies after three days of listening, learning, and sharing. 

Second, what made me reflect. These are my top takeaways from three days of plenaries, sessions, and workshops.

  1. Unpack the jargon. We think we’re saying one thing, but the recipients of our words might either tune us out or hear an entirely different thing. What do words like “empowerment,” “intersectionality,” and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” really mean? How much gets lost in translation when working across disciplines, languages, and cultures? Do we care more about impressing our readers or about getting the heart of our message across?
  • Build bridges. How do we balance local and global initiatives? We need leaders and organizations with a global focus to understand and respect the power and expertise of those who get the local or regional context. Perhaps we also need to find new ways for leaders around the globe to work together and share learnings. Perhaps this needs to happen in a context where no one is trying to “save” anyone. Maybe we would all benefit from creating systems for equitable collaboration and partnership. Does the flow of ideas always have to be subject to the flow of money? Is it naïve to imagine otherwise?
  • Culture is the key. Policy change is important, and we should invest in it. But unless we change the culture of organizations and society at large, we will not see paradigm shifts. So, how do we do this? Culture is built by people. It starts with buy-in at the top, but for it to be ingrained into the DNA of an organization, it must pervade through every level. To me, the critical question is: how do we invest in our people? How do we ensure that people—at every level—are consistently informing, sustaining, and leading the evolution of our culture, no matter who is at the top?
  • We need to talk about caregiving. Caregiving is unofficially built into many women’s lives. An example is the idea of the “sandwich generation”: many working adults end up being caregivers of both their children and their parents. They are not only working parents, but also working children. I found myself in this very place in 2019, with a 2-year-old child and a father dying of cancer. I was wracked with the guilt that I was not doing enough for either of them, despite working in the most enabling environment possible and having the strongest ally one could have in a life partner. What is it like for those who have no institutional or familial support?
  • Everyone needs emotional intelligence training. Emotional intelligence is much more than a skill or tool—it is fundamental to being a good human and a good leader. Fortunately, it can be learned, and it’s never too late. The alumna- and partner-led emotional intelligence workshop at the conference was incredibly well attended. Panelists in other sessions also expressed how important it is for men to cultivate emotional intelligence, so that they can not only become better allies to women but also do the same for each other. 
  • Reframe the ideal professional and ideal mother.

What is an “ideal professional”? Is she someone who works on nights and weekends, answers every email within 24 hours, and responds to all messages within an hour?

What is an “ideal mother”? Is she someone who stays at home, cooks every meal, attends all school events, and drives her kid to as many extracurricular activities as possible?

Women are expected to be ideal professionals while taking care of their children and elderly parents. Women are expected to be ideal mothers and caretakers while working a full- or part-time job. 

Oy, I am exhausted from just writing this!


How can anyone live up to these unattainable standards? What role can institutional leaders play in reframing these expectations and role modeling new behaviors? We need cultural paradigm shifts, and the solutions must come from both men and women, at work and at home. How can male allies amplify their efforts in their homes? How can mothers reframe expectations of themselves and shed the layers of guilt heaped on their existing burdens and responsibilities?

Third, what motivates me to push even harder. These are the things that keep the fire in my belly burning:

  1. The growing anti-rights movement around the globe is scary. LGBTQIA+ rights seemed to be advancing around the world—including in India and parts of Southeast Asia. We welcomed our first African American president in the U.S. We were starting to see more women as heads of state around the world, albeit at a frustratingly slow pace (4 in 1995 to 17 in 2024). But now, we’re seeing even this marginal progress being eroded by actions like the reversal of Roe v Wade in the United States, a global pushback against equity and inclusion, and a rise in xenophobia. How can we find common ground? Whatever the strategy, we must fight to protect fundamental human dignity, safety, and rights, especially for marginalized groups. We must do this collectively, systematically, and on a grand scale. The time is NOW. 
  • The climate crisis is already happening. In this month alone there are devastating floods in Kenya, and in Asia and the U.S we’re bracing for record heat waves. Where is our sense of urgency? Where are women leaders in this fight? At WomenLift Health, we are keen to invest in the leadership skills of women who work at the intersection of health, climate, and gender. Institutions have been investing billions of dollars in technological solutions and products for a long time. They have achieved a lot of success, but we’re still way behind global health targets. Why? How do we ensure that the monumental resources being spent on lifesaving technologies get through layers of bureaucracy to that precious last mile? How do we ensure that the diverse leaders who understand these complex contexts are included at decision-making tables? How do we ensure that when uncertainty and fear inevitably arise, we have leaders who can handle volatility and lead with agility and resilience?

Last, what excites me about the future. The collective power of WomenLift Health community and the desire to pay it forward.The ideas that germinate after these conferences and the belief that when we put our heads, hearts, and hands together, there is no ceiling too high, no barrier too daunting. There are big challenges, and together, we will overcome

Connect with Shereen on https://www.linkedin.com/in/shereenbhan/