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The Changing Face of Leadership

For the first time in the history of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the official photo of the Organization’s highest governing body portrays exactly the same number of men and women.

The photo depicts 18 men and 18 women who represented their countries in PAHO’s 51st Directing Council. It shows ministers of health, chief medical officers, and other heads of national delegations as well as the senior leadership from PAHO and the World Health Organization (WHO).


2011 – 51st Directing Council: 18 men and 18 women


2010 – 50th Directing Council: almost two thirds men


The contrast between this photo and group photos of previous meetings is remarkable. In 1926, the official photo of the delegates to the First Pan American Conference of National Directors of Public Health included 24 men and not a single woman. Ten years later, in 1936, the number of men increased to 30, representing the larger number of Member States participating. Still no women in sight.


1926 First Pan American Conference of National Health Authorities: no women


1936 - Third Pan American Conference of National Health Authorities: no women


1948 – Sixth Pan American Conference of National Health Authorities: women appear for the first time.


It took decades for women to trickle into the PAHO official photos. Two landmark moments were the election of the first female president of the Directing Council, Dr. Sylvia Talbot, in 1969, and of the first director of the Organization, Dr. Mirta Roses, in 2003.

A milestone towards change was the approval of PAHO’s Gender Equality Policy by the Directing Council in 2005 for attaining gender equality and empowerment of women in “Health for All.”

Dr. Roses prefaced the policy by emphasizing that unfair inequalities between women and men need to be eliminated in “all spheres of action of health institutions,” and should include the democratic participation in the distribution of responsibilities, rewards, and power in health development.

That is a long departure from the article published in the September 1930 American Journal of Public Health, in which the then-assistant to the director, Dr. Bolívar J. Lloyd, wrote that protection of public health is a matter that must be dealt with by “men who are specially trained in such work.”

In 1948, for the first time, women appeared in an official PAHO photo of the Sixth Pan American Conference of national health authorities, which took place in Mexico. There are three women and 22 men in the picture. In the photo of the 50th Directing Council, taken last year, two-thirds are still men.

It took 53 years to reach parity among women and men.

The sense of balance in the 2011 photo is present in every detail. In the center position is Dr. Franklyn Vergara. He is flanked by two women, Dr. Roses, and Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “This makes me very happy,” said Dr. María Isabel Rodríguez, Minister of Health of El Salvador, who appears in the now historical 2011 photo. “Finally we have the right proportion. This is a great motivation for our public health sector.”

“This is a plus for focusing on chronic diseases, like childhood obesity, and the health care of mother and child. Women are closer to these issues and now have a powerful role to play,” said Dr. Hubert A. Minnis, Minister of Health of the Bahamas, who also appears in the 2011 photo.

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