Marjorie Sims – Women’s Health Equates Family Health

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Jan 28, 2019
by Lucy Browett and Anna Rawe
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Marjorie Sims – Women’s Health Equates Family Health

Managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute discusses the role of women in public health policy-making Majorie Sims at Salzburg Global Seminar

Marjorie Sims is no stranger to advocating for women and families. At Ascend at the Aspen Institute, she helps foster initiatives and networks to build opportunities for low-income families to advance in society. The organization looks at education, economic security, and health among other things and does so with an intersectional outlook.

Sims is one of more than 50 participants from around the world who convened at Schloss Leopoldskron to participate in the program Healthy Children, Healthy Weight, part of Salzburg Global’s long-standing multi-year series, Health and Health Care Innovation.

Sims spoke with Salzburg Global to discuss Ascend’s work and the specific health-related challenges women and families face.

This Q&A with Sims has been edited for length and clarity.

Salzburg Global: So you’re mostly focused on women and families. How did you end up coming into that area?

Marjorie Sims: So, really the work that we do at Ascend is more focused on the entire family: providing services to the entire family. But personally, for me, my passion for years has been the civil and human rights of women and girls and recognizing that, in the United States, the majority of families that are low-income are headed by single moms, so taking a gender perspective to that work.

SG: Do you think that enough work is done on how to reach young moms and young moms’ health? Do you think that that’s an area that needs to develop?

MS: Definitely develop. Definitely develop. I think it’s complex too because there are really good organizations that are doing work, but they are not able to reach all the people that need the services. Also, it’s important to know how young moms get information and sometimes it’s not through an NGO. It may be through an informal network that she might be a part of and so how do you really understand that? But I don’t think that there [are] nearly enough services to help all of the people that are in need. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have jobs.

SG: So why do you think it’s so important to look at women in health? Why do you think that women need more advocacy in a health space?

MS: Well I think historically through just the way the medical system has focused, women’s health has never been a focus of real research. In the US, most of the health research is focused on middle-aged white men. And so if you don’t have the information and data needed to really address women’s health challenges, then they’re at a disadvantage there -particularly for women of color. They’re even at a more disadvantage because of structural inequities that have existed for a long time.

So working on women’s health, and because women are the caregivers in society and in a way continue to be, if they’re of ill health then I think that affects the family, and it affects communities, and we simply aren’t able to thrive. Women do the majority of unremunerated work in countries and, if they’re not healthy, then a lot of that caregiving just simply does not happen. Women’s health to me equates family health and community health, so I feel pretty passionately about it.

SG: In your work, what do you do about those kinds of issues?

MS: For Ascend of the Aspen Institute, we have a national network of non-profit organizations [and] NGOs that we work with, that look at all of these issues in [the] community. Their work is community-based. What we try to do is provide them with technical assistance so that they can do their work better and then also peer learning opportunities. Like Salzburg, we do a lot of convening, bringing people together for shared learning and understanding and cross-pollination of innovations and good ideas. So that’s how we approach it. We also have a fellowship program where we bring together groups of 20 or so leaders that work together over an 18-month period to deepen their leadership in innovations and community.

SG: What changes would you like to see? What is your vision of what health could be for women and children?

MS: I think that really valuing the voices of women and families in program design, in policy design, in implementation and assessment is really important. Most often, what we see in our work is that policymakers and sometimes practitioners don’t really talk to the participants of the programs that they’re designing and implementing to really understand where there are opportunities and where there are barriers. What I would like to see is first and foremost that program participants, families and communities are really involved at the foundation of creating programs. And if we could do that, I would be really, really happy because I think it would make a difference, a dramatic difference to the ways in which programs are successful.

SG: Do you think that maybe responsibility for children’s health is put more on women? Or do you think maybe women look at their health less because they’re giving care to other people? What do you think the link is between how the patriarchy manifests itself in families’ health?

MS: I think that, because women still have this caregiving role, (and I think a lot of women want that role) for me, it’s about choice. If a woman chooses that then it’s fine and her right. But what is unconscious and kind of assumed is what needs to be examined. Women continue to be the caregivers in families. So I think that the health that really suffers is her health. Not really the child’s health or health of other children, older children or the man. It’s been proven that, in the United States, men go to the doctor less frequently than women do but, when they do, they tend to get better care. So I think that women, particularly women with low incomes, they’re going to try to help their kids or help their family before they help themselves. That’s documented around the world that that’s the case.

SG: Do you see a solution as more of a community solution or more of a state solution?

MS: I think it’s both. I really do think it’s both. I think that you have to have strong policies that look at, ‘How do you address all types of inequities?’ Racism, classism, all of the ‘isms’ from an intersectional perspective. Then [you have to] fund programs that really are supportive of women and families.


The program Healthy Children, Healthy Weight was part of Salzburg Global's multi-year series Health and Health Care Innovation. This program was held in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.