Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Kristen Meagher: "Women's leadership is the ability to influence policy, practice, and systems"

Leann Rodrigues

MA student in Strategic Communications

28 March 2024

MA student Leann Rodrigues interviews Kristen Meagher, PhD candidate and Programme Manager of the Research for Health Systems Strengthening in Northern Syria (R4HSSS) project. Kristen shares insights into women's leadership roles in conflict zones and academia, highlighting the intersection of gender, health and security.

How does increasing the participation of women in leadership roles positively affect health outcomes, particularly within conflict zones like northwest Syria?

Kristen: Women are disproportionately affected by conflict and humanitarian crises, with pre-existing gender disparities exacerbated under such conditions. Disrupted community structures, diminished healthcare access, and compromised human rights further compound these challenges. Efforts to increase female healthcare workers have shown promise in improving indicators such as child mortality and reproductive health access in conflict-affected regions. However, there is still a significant gap that needs to be addressed.

Reframing and reconceptualising women in leadership is crucial. Women’s leadership is not simply about the impact on health outcomes or health services, but its ability to influence policy, practice, and systems. Advancing the concept and understanding of what health systems leadership and women in leadership roles can offer the health system is important for how the system develops resilience in a fragmented and conflict-affected context.

A purely health outcomes focus detracts from the importance of leadership diversity at the systems level. It completely disregards women as central to health systems strengthening from a leadership and governance perspective, focusing on women as primarily end-users and reinforcing widely accepted gender norms and women’s subordinate role in influencing decision-making at the systems level in health.

How does the inclusion of diverse perspectives enrich the field of security studies and public health?

Kristen: The inclusion of diverse perspectives, particularly women's voices, profoundly enriches both fields. In conflict zones, there's often a reluctance to challenge cultural or societal norms, fearing disruption. However, many women in these areas express a desire for radical change rather than incremental adjustments. They have witnessed incremental shifts over time, only to find themselves marginalised when it comes to leadership roles.

Women tend to undersell their aspirations, hindering progress. So, we must be bold in our ideas and demands because incremental changes won't suffice. While there's significant momentum globally, it's imperative to ensure that voices from all corners of the world are heard, aiding in the decolonisation of agendas.

What are some of the key challenges faced by women in leadership positions within health systems in conflict zones?

Kristen: One of the biggest issues is the coexistence of overwhelmingly patriarchal systems within both societal and healthcare contexts. These systems exacerbate each other, imposing additional barriers and limitations on women's leadership roles. Conflict disrupts traditional gender roles and expectations, offering opportunities for women to expand their roles beyond conventional boundaries. However, navigating these evolving norms amidst the chaos of conflict poses considerable challenges.

The weaponisation of healthcare and targeted attacks against healthcare workers are distressing features of many conflicts, including those in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan. These threats not only endanger women's physical safety but also impede their career advancement within the health sector. Security threats are often used to reinforce patriarchal power structures, perpetuating a narrative that undermines women's capabilities and excludes them from decision-making roles.

Beyond local actors, military factions and donors with foreign agendas, exert influence over health systems in conflict zones. These actors may not adequately engage with the local context and often bring patriarchal agendas, complicating efforts to empower women in leadership positions. Overcoming these obstacles requires structural reforms, meaningful engagement with local contexts, and concerted efforts to dismantle patriarchal systems entrenched within both conflict and healthcare settings.

As a co-leader of the Women Leaders in Health and Conflict initiative, what are your primary goals?

Kristen: The primary goal is to respond to the growing demand for female leadership in conflict-affected regions. We're dedicated to showcasing the remarkable work of everyday women who are making a difference in their communities amidst conflict. We strive to foster open and honest discussions that challenge traditional perceptions of women's leadership. The aim is to shift mindsets and promote greater inclusivity and collaboration across gender lines. We encourage men to see and acknowledge the value of diverse leadership perspectives, contributing to broader movements and conversations about women's roles in conflict and peacebuilding.

Ultimately, our efforts boil down to challenging the status quo. Through our research project conducted at the end of 2022, we examined how strengthening peacebuilding initiatives through women's leadership in health systems can contribute to long-term stability, the right to health, and health system responsiveness across conflict-affected regions like Afghanistan, Syria, and Cameroon. We aim to empower women to bring health and peace together in conflict-affected areas and create a stronger connection to support women working in conflict lines.

What challenges have you encountered or observed women face in their academic careers?

Kristen: Navigating the academic world as a woman has its hurdles. There's a distinct lack of support for women, which is a common issue seen across various industries. The "motherhood leadership penalty" is a stark reality, where women who take breaks from their careers to raise children often face difficulties returning and advancing compared to their male counterparts. Academia itself is fiercely competitive, with securing permanent roles posing a significant challenge for women.

Overall, while there have been challenges, I've been fortunate to have supportive colleagues and bosses. Flexible working arrangements, like those at King's, make a significant difference, but there's still much room for improvement across academia to ensure gender equity and support for women in their academic careers.

How can academia and universities promote gender equality and empower women researchers?  

Kristen: Increasing the representation of women in academia is crucial for promoting gender equality and empowering women researchers. Having more women pursue careers in fields where men are overrepresented is essential for amplifying diverse voices and perspectives. I've noticed that the younger generation seem more outspoken and determined to challenge inequality. We need that kind of courage and determination to effect meaningful change. Increasing the representation of women in leadership positions is also crucial for providing role models and advocates. Additionally, ensuring that academic curricula are diverse and inclusive, and prioritising funding for research projects led by women, can help level the playing field.

What advice would you give to aspiring researchers, especially women, who are interested in pursuing careers in academia and conducting research in conflict and gender-related fields?

Kristen: I firmly believe in the importance of supporting other women as we advance in our careers. Taking on the role of mentor and advocate can make a significant difference for women in academia. By offering guidance and encouragement, we can build a strong and supportive community that fosters success for all. It's crucial to celebrate each other's achievements and champion gender equality in fields such as these.

As we celebrate International Women's Month, is there a woman who have inspired and influenced your work? 

Kristen: It's hard to pick just one, but I would say Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who has been a huge inspiration to me. Being a fellow New Zealander, I've always admired her advocacy for women's leadership and rights, as well as her efforts to address broader socio-economic inequalities.

There are also other remarkable female politicians who have made significant strides in New Zealand and beyond. It's fascinating, but also disheartening, to see the discrimination they face, from threats of violence to vile comments. Yet, these women continue to push forward, advocating for others and supporting each other. So yes, Helen Clark holds a special place in my heart for her resilience and dedication to advancing women's rights.

In this story

Kristen Meagher

Kristen Meagher

Research Officer

Latest news