Dr Norah Obudho: How my ‘career suicide’ turned into a stunning journey

Dr Norah Obudho during the interview with Nation.Africa on August 28, 2023 at Riverside in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  •  Dr Norah Obudho's parents were shocked when she quit a permanent job as a government doctor, to pursue a new career.
  • There was constant shortage of basic equipment doctors needed to attend to patients where she worked; she quit after one died.
  • In her current role at WomenLift Health, she expands the power of talented women in global health and champions gender equality in healthcare leadership.

The beauty of the modern-day professional is their ability to explore different areas of interest other than conventional paths. This, however, is a new phenomenon. At the time Dr Norah Obudho considered a new path in her career, many considered her decision as ‘career suicide’.

“My parents could not believe that I was leaving a permanent and pensionable job as a government doctor, to pursue a new career. They were worried about me,’’ Dr Norah, who is the East Africa Director of WomenLift Health says.

The public health specialist recounts the events that led to her quitting clinical practice and pivot to public health.

"I had just left medical school and was interning at a provincial hospital where I worked at casualty. One night, there was a massive accident and I was ready at my station to receive patients. However, there was constant shortage of basic equipment that a doctor would use to efficiently attend to a patient.''

She narrates how she went looking for gloves at the nurses’ room to help stabilise the patients but was met with a rude shock.

“They (the nurses) were just sitting, having tea, completely oblivious to the situation. I told them there was an accident and about 10 to 20 patients would be coming in. One of them simply told me that because we did not have gloves, there was nothing we could do to help. They were completely calm and desensitised,’’ she recounts.

She quit her job the following day.

Quit her job

“Healthcare goes beyond attending to patients in the ward. It goes beyond the health worker. You need equipment and a suitable environment to work. That night, I lost a patient. I thought it was ridiculous because their injuries were not fatal,’’ she explains her decision to quit her job.

However, Dr Norah emphasises that she had always wanted to be a doctor.

“Growing up, I wanted to do veterinary medicine because I love animals but my parents were against it. I enrolled at the University of Nairobi to pursue a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 2000. I eventually translated my love for taking care of animals to humans.’’

Dr Norah was excited to join medical school because she had a lot of female classmates. Sadly, however, most of them had to drop out because they got pregnant and it was so hard for them to come back, she says.

“When you're a woman studying medicine, you can’t get pregnant until the end. I thought that was unfair because most of us were in our reproductive age and even though it was not a university policy, there was an unwritten rule that once you got pregnant, you could not keep up with the pressure of being in medical school” she says.

She also recalls that there was a lot of subtle sexism in the classroom where lecturers treated male and female students differently.

“Sometimes we'd be in a lecture and a female student would respond to a question correctly but the lecture would be so nonchalant about it. When a male student gave a similar response, the lecturer would applaud them,” she says.

In retrospect, Dr Norah realised she experienced gender discrimination at the learning institution. She is also concerned about how pregnant women are treated in workplaces and learning institutions. This is what influenced her to go to Israel for her Master's in Public Health degree, from the Hebrew University.

“Israel was a different kind of environment than the University of Nairobi. Both men and women’s inputs were considered of equal weight. I never felt any gender discrimination.’’

However, when she got back to Kenya and got pregnant with her first child, she thought she would not land a job.

Gender equality

“I tried to hide my pregnancy while job hunting because I thought that would be a reason I may not get employed. After I got a job, one the recruiters told me that they knew I was pregnant and still hired me.’’

Throughout her employment with the organisation, Dr Norah was accommodated, which led her to achieve immense success in her role. She was allowed to travel with her maid whenever she travelled for work. She had the support of her colleagues throughout the process.

“You have to identify male allies in your career growth because most times they will be the most supportive in your career. There was a male colleague who decided that my motherhood would not be a barrier to my career. I am grateful for that.’’

Her experience of being a young working mother also makes her question the statutory minimum of three months maternity leave as provided by the Employment Act, 2007. She opines the same should be amended to at least six months.

The organisation she worked with was able to support access to HIV treatment to seven major prisons in the country. By the time she left, Dr Norah says they had worked with about 4,000 prisoners and offices.

In her current role as the East Africa Director, WomenLift Health, she expands the power of talented women in global health and champions gender equality in healthcare leadership.

“My current role allows me to ideate and incorporate gender equality while drawing my experiences from facing gender discrimination in medical school and at some work institutions. We work with women in the healthcare space by equipping them with leadership skills,’’ she says.

Leadership skills

She references a study conducted by WomenLift  Health  titled,  Comparing barriers and enablers of women’s health leadership in India with East Africa and North America  that found that 70 per cent of global health leaders are men, while women from low and middle-income countries cumulatively held 9 per cent of total board seats.

“What the research also showed was that women started to drop off the leadership ladder because their workplaces did not accommodate their reproductive cycle. This made them stagnate in one rank for long periods of time.’’

She adds that women in healthcare also found it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities.

“Most women for instance, will not specialise in neurosurgery because they want to have a children. Specialising may require the doctor to work long hours, which most women find difficult due to their family responsibilities,’’ Dr Norah explains.

To address those challenges, WomenLift Health runs a leadership academy designed to provide talented mid-career women leaders in health with a safe space to explore their authentic leadership.

“The most important aspect about being a leader is being authentic. You can only do so by knowing yourself. I have experiences of positional and competitive leadership, which involved putting others down in an environment that was very toxic. It got to a point where I had to quit because it affected my mental health, performance and family.’’

Dr Norah adds that they also teach their fellows to navigate office politics rather than sitting it out.

“Women should appreciate the power plays in an organisation because they can’t be ignored. Men are better adapted to office politics because of how they are socialised. We would like our fellows not to shun politics but leverage it to become impactful leaders,’’ she explains.

They have worked with 60 women from East Africa since they began the program. Among the beneficiaries are Dr Idyoro Ojukwu the first female obstetrician and gynaecologist in South Sudan, and Nelly Munyasia a sexual and reproductive health rights specialist from Kenya.

Through the program, Dr Norah hopes to improve the health outcomes in Africa because she believes women's leadership is different.