Women, power and cancer:

A Lancet Commission

Commissioner of the Month for May 2024

Commissioner name

Nirmala Bhoo Pathy

Job Title

Professor, Public Health Physician at Universiti Malaya, Universiti Malaya Medical Center

Why are you passionate about your work on the Commission?

I am passionate about my work on the Commission because it gives me a chance to stand up for something I deeply believe in: gender equity in medicine. It is not every day that you get invited to be part of a movement pushing for fairness in healthcare. Gender equity is a topic that does not get enough airtime, especially where I come from. It might look like we have an equal number of men and women in our medical training programs. And yes, there are some women leaders too. But scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that the game is still rigged in favor of men. Sometimes, the perpetrator of patriarchy is women themselves, especially in low- and middle-income settings.

In the healthcare sector, breaking through the glass ceiling is like trying to climb a mountain with a boulder on your back. It takes forever for us to see a woman at the top, especially in big organizations like Ministries of Health. We have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves while dealing with stereotypes about women's roles and outdated ideas about who belongs in leadership. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

 Outside of work, I absolutely love traveling, especially embarking on motorbiking adventures with my husband (disclaimer: I'm usually the pillion!) We enjoy exploring off the beaten track across Southeast Asia, immersing ourselves in the local culture, and of course, indulging in delicious food along the way. I find exploring new destinations, trying different cuisines, and experiencing the thrill of the open road is truly invigorating.

What excites you most about the ongoing work of the Commission in 2024?

I’m excited about the opportunity to engage a diverse range of stakeholders and mobilize them to act on our findings in their respective settings. Starting in Asia, we can already see our work sparking meaningful conversations and hopefully, driving real change. 

One memorable moment was at the Asia Pacific Breast Cancer Summit in Bali, where I presented our Commission's findings. A senior clinician raised thought-provoking points about the representation of women in oncology and their role in controlling household finances in many LMICs. His observations sparked reflection on the concepts of equality and equity, highlighting the ongoing challenges women face despite progress and offered an opportunity to foster a mindset shift and embrace feminist principles to lead to gender equity.

Another exciting development is engaging Tatler Asia to ensure our findings extend beyond academia. By reaching broader audiences through platforms like Tatler, we can amplify our message and drive tangible change. Overall, I'm thrilled to see our work making waves and sparking meaningful conversations that may lead to positive action. 

What drew you to join the Commission?

First, it was an honor to be invited by Commission co-chair Ophira Ginsburg. I've long admired Ophira for her boldness and intellect, and I knew that working alongside her would be inspiring and impactful. Similarly, co-chair Verna Vanderpuye, a powerhouse and voice of Africa, brought her own unique perspective and strength to the commission. Collaborating with such strong women felt like an incredible opportunity, and The Lancet's reputation added weight to the commission's mission. Seeing outstanding representation from the Global South within our commission was heartwarming and inspiring. It's rare to see such diverse perspectives represented at this level, and I was eager to contribute to this collective effort for change.

When I learned that we would be addressing gender disparities, power inequities, and social determinants of health, I felt like I had found my calling. As the oldest child in a family of four daughters, leadership, rebellion, and disruption have always been part of my nature. Joining a commission dedicated to challenging the status quo and promoting equity felt like coming home. So, when Ophira asked me to join, my answer was a resounding yes.