A Conversation with Jennifer Gersbeck, Executive Director – Global Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation
When it comes to advocating for good vision for everyone, it’s crucial that women have a seat at the table. Women and girls make up 55% of people globally who have uncorrected vision impairment. To complicate the issue, stigmas still exist in many places and populations that can prevent women from correcting their poor vision. These challenges, along with others, have not hindered Jennifer Gersbeck, Executive Director – Global Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation, from tackling the issue head-on.
Jennifer has served as an unwavering advocate for gender equity in vision across the foundation as well as the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), co-chairing the Gender Equity Work Group. We recently had the opportunity to discuss the issue of gender equity in vision health with her, and here are some of her thoughts.
YOU’VE BUILT YOUR CAREER IN VISION HEALTH AROUND COLLABORATION. GIVE US AN OVERVIEW OF SOME OF THE KEY COLLABORATIONS YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN AND WHY YOU BELIEVE STRONGLY IN THE POWER OF BRINGING DIVERSE GROUPS TOGETHER?
Gersbeck: Prior to joining The Fred Hollows Foundation in 2016, I was CEO of Vision 2020 Australia for over a decade. Leading the umbrella membership body for the eye health sector in Australia, my primary role was to bring together a disparate group of organizations from service providers, consumer bodies, professional associations, education institutions, academia, and international development to deliver a collective message and lobby governments for change. It became clear very early that change is not possible without collective action.
By fostering partnerships and collaboration, much was achieved, both in Australia and in our region. Some of the key highlights include a longstanding eye health promotion program, over $68 million in overseas aid to the Asia-Pacific region under the Avoidable Blindness initiative, establishment of a Parliamentary Friends Group for Eye Health and Vision Care to raise awareness of eye health among Australian Parliamentarians, delivering Australia’s first National Eye Health Survey, the inclusion of people with low vision in the National Disability Insurance Scheme and contributing to halving the rate of blindness and vision impairment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Joining The Fred Hollows Foundation, I utilized my partnership and diplomacy skills to drive the global agenda for eye health forward, advocating strongly for the World Report on Vision and the World Health Assembly resolution on integrated people-centered eye care in 2020. I work collaboratively with my fellow IAPB Board members and actively participate in global advocacy efforts with other member organizations.
I strongly believe that success is built on influencing the right decision-makers, demonstrating a united front and always being clear about what you are seeking to achieve. A favorite African proverb of mine states: If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE THERE WAS A NEED TO ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS?
Gersbeck: I am passionate about, and am a champion for, gender equity – it is so important to me. My goal is to ensure gender equity is embedded across the eye health sector, both programmatically in the work that we and others do, but also within organizations like The Fred Hollows Foundation, because without walking the talk and living the values yourself, you cannot expect it to translate to the programs we, and others, deliver.
After years working with IAPB, it was clear that the issue of gender equity needed greater visibility. In addition to the burden of vision impairment not being borne equally, the lack of female leadership and representation across the sector needed to be addressed. That is why I gathered support and proposed the establishment of the Gender Equity Work Group to the IAPB Board.
It is not only my own experience as a female leader that drives this passion, but also because of the challenges faced by other women that I have witnessed. I want to do what I can as an individual, but it is also critical that we mobilize, unite, and gather more momentum than we have had in the past.
WOMEN AND GIRLS MAKE UP 55% OF PEOPLE GLOBALLY WHO HAVE UNCORRECTED VISION IMPAIRMENT. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH THROUGH THIS GROUP TO IMPACT THESE NUMBERS?
Gersbeck: The primary role of the Work Group is to facilitate shared learning, exchange good practices, and inform/guide IAPB's advocacy efforts on gender equity.
A key activity of the Work Group has been the development of a Gender Equity Toolkit. The aim of this toolkit is to provide guidance, resources, tools, and programmatic best practice examples to help eye health colleagues globally plan and deliver eye health programs that are gender sensitive, gender responsive and/or gender transformative.
In many countries, women do not get to access services and assistive products with the same frequency as men. Vision loss has far-reaching implications, not just for the women affected, but also for their families and communities. The toolkit has been developed to address common barriers to equitable access to eye health services for women and girls. Tools are provided to address organizational development, program design and review, training, and the impact of COVID-19 on vision. Our hope is that by using these tools, the global eye health sector will strengthen gender equity in our organizations and programs collectively. The toolkit is open access, the tools themselves provided pro-bono by other IAPB members and external sources, so I would encourage anyone reading to click through, have a look, and share widely.
EVIDENCE SHOWS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS DISPROPORTIONATELY AFFECTED WOMEN’S LIVES. HAVE YOU SEEN A SIMILAR IMPACT WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR ABILITY TO ACCESS EYE CARE SERVICES?
Gersbeck: We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has gendered effects. Men are more likely than women to be seriously ill or die from COVID; however, women, especially women of color, Indigenous women, and women on low-incomes, are particularly susceptible to contracting the disease, as well as feeling the economic instability and lack of access to services, including eye care services.
As the UN Secretary-General said in April 2020: The “limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. That is why, together with others in the eye health sector, we are calling on all governments globally to put women and girls at the centre of recovery efforts.
With COVID-19 impacting communities, countries and regions around the globe, the way forward for health care ought to look and be different. Women play a critical role in the advancement of global health, both in formal roles and informally within their families and communities, but men continue to hold the majority of leadership positions. Women make up 70% of the global healthcare workforce yet occupy less than 25% of leadership positions. This pandemic has shed light on the growing inequities and problems of how health care is currently being led and who is making critical decisions.
Interestingly, a survey of IAPB member organizations released on International Women’s Day in March this year showed that while 24% have strengthened their gender equity policies in light of COVID-19, 54% have made no changes or even talked at an Executive level about strengthening gender equity policies. More needs to be done.
HOW CAN WE GAIN GREATER EQUITY FOR WOMEN WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR VISION HEALTH?
Gersbeck: Gender equity is not a women’s issue, it is everyone’s issue. Attitudes to girls and women are developed and often solidified early on, but by making men (and boys) part of the solution, they will influence their peers and this will help develop sustainable gender equity social and cultural norms. It is not the women’s job to make the change by themselves.
As Helen Clark, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, former head of the United Nations Development Programme, and member of the Global Health 50/50 Advisory Council argues, “the fight for gender equity is a tide that lifts all boats. Redefining family-caring roles as shared rather than the principal responsibility of women promotes women’s retention and progression in the workforce and, as evidence increasingly shows, contributes to improved relationships between fathers and their children, reduced risk of divorce, improved outcomes for children and greater family economic security.”
WHAT INITIAL LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THE SHORT TIME THAT YOU HAVE BEEN A LEADER OF THIS GROUP THAT WILL INFORM ITS FUTURE?
Gersbeck: There are many in the sector equally as passionate about gender equity as me – which is great. Women collaborate well and get things done - although I probably already knew that! However, if we are to achieve gender equity this cannot remain an issue mainly tackled by women, which is why we are actively seeking greater representation of men on the Gender Equity Work Group.
As we make some inroads and delve deeper into the issues, two areas have emerged as priorities for this group moving forward. The first is women’s leadership. In November 2020, the IAPB Gender Equity Work Group hosted a webinar about "Build Back Equal" (#BuildBackEqual) featuring voices that continued to highlight what the evidence backs up. Women doing the work need to be present when decisions are being made and issues are being discussed. Women need to be empowered to lead these critical conversations. It is not enough to ensure that women have a seat, but that such spaces and seats should be made up of a range of identities that allow a more collaborative discussion.
The second is intersectionality. By applying an intersectionality lens — the way that different factors such as race, class, gender, and other identities combine to affect lived experiences differently – we ensure that the consideration of socially stratifying factors are able to further illuminate, track and monitor inequities in eye health. On 25 November, I am hosting a webinar entitled ‘Diverse voices drive better eye health’ which aims to expand the understanding and awareness of intersectionality issues and how they might affect those working in eye health; those trying to access our services, and our leaders in eye health. The webinar is open to all, so to register, please follow this link.
WHAT CAN WE, AS ADVOCATES FOR WOMEN, DO TO ENSURE THERE IS GREATER GENDER EQUITY WHEN IT COMES TO GOOD VISION FOR WOMEN?
Gersbeck: Within the global eye care sector, stakeholders at every level have a role to play in paving the path for a more equitable future in how people access services, how they are delivered, by whom, and who is planning and making decisions around such activities and resource distribution.
We know that health systems will be stronger and health outcomes more equitable when the women who deliver them have an equal say in the design of national health plans, policies, and systems.
As advocates for women, we must ensure that women’s perspectives are included more intentionally in planning, policymaking, and programming.
At the Generation Equality Forum in July 2021, a new report ‘Gender equality: Women’s rights in review 25 years after Beijing’ was launched. The report calls for four catalysts for change: support women’s movements and leadership; harness technology for gender equality; ensure no one is left behind; and match commitments with resources. We must embrace this call to action.
#BuildBackEqual highlighted the unique opportunity that COVID-19 has presented the world to be intentional and inclusive when responding and re-building our systems. In the eye health community, this means breaking down silos and working with other sectors to understand lessons learned and integrate them into our systems and work moving forward. It means choosing to integrate gender proactively and intentionally. It means listening to the voices of women who are doing the work and ensuring that there is access to leadership opportunities at every level within our organizations, systems, and structures. We must do things differently moving forward.
Jennifer Gersbeck is the Executive Director – Global Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation. She entered the word of eye health in 2004 as the CEO of Vision 2020 Australia and transformed a small, largely-program oriented organization into a globally recognized example of leadership, collaboration and influence. Jennifer joined The Fred Hollows Foundation in 2016. She was a key force in moving the very first World Report on Vision from an idea to a reality, and driving forward the World Health Assembly Resolution in 2020. Jennifer is recognized globally as a not-for-profit /public sector strategist, leader and sought-after speaker.