HMi meets… Ulana Suprun

Ulana Suprun, acting minister of healthcare of Ukraine

Ulana Suprun, acting minister of healthcare of Ukraine and a former successful radiologist in New York, discusses the challenges that she has faced as a woman in a very male dominated sector and passes on three tips to younger women. 

I practised medicine for 15 years at a very successful private practice in Manhattan, so I do have a lot of experience in the private side. We were a women’s imaging centre and we were 100% female personnel from myself and my partner who owned the practice to all of the people who worked for us. It made for a very comfortable environment for women, particularly when it comes to women synergy.

Most of medicine, however, is not like that. Most of medicine, whether it’s the business side or on the side of clinical work, is heavily male when it comes to the leading roles.

Gender juggling

We recently looked at the primary care facilities that were most successful in Ukraine and we highlighted one of them. They had sent us a picture of their staff. There were 35 people in the picture and there was one male. Guess who was the head doctor of that group? The man.

This problem is not unique to the US, to Canada, and to the West.

It is a big problem in Eastern European countries, especially those post-Soviet states where there was a very paternalistic attitude towards women, even in the legal sense.

I was shocked when I came into the ministry in 2016 to find out there was still an existing law in Ukraine that banned women from doing certain professions. It included long-haul truck drivers or conductors on a train because it might affect an ability to have children.

I don’t know who came up with this idea but in 2017 we were able to cancel this law and women in Ukraine can now enter any profession.

There was one profession left that they couldn’t have which was being a miner because as part of the Soviet Union we had signed a convention, but we finally have cancelled that one as well.

What happened to those women who worked as miners or long-haul truck drivers? Because we did have women working in those professions. They would be listed as cleaning ladies, or they would be listed as some other person – a mechanic, for example – and they would be paid less. And in the case of the miners, they wouldn’t get any of the social services that were available to those who later had health problems.

2016 TO FIND

We’ve been able to free women from the shackles of the old law, and we’ve also been able to provide them with the social services that they never would have been able to access in the past.

Maternal thinking

In the Ukraine we have another law that says women can go on maternity leave for up to three years and retain their job on almost full pay. The employer is required to keep the position open, which means that they have to hire a temporary person to fill that position so that when the woman returns she can have her job back.

You might think that this is a positive thing: women can stay home for three years, have one child, a second child, and a third child. Three children and eight years later they come back to work, but now they’re eight years behind their male counterparts. It’s very rare indeed for the husband, the father of the child, to stay at home.

Unlevel playing fields

These laws were made in the 1940s and 1950s supposedly to protect women and their rights. But in the end what has happened in that that women are not able to keep up with their male counterparts in all of these different professions.

Now I’m going to turn to government in Ukraine. In 2015 an election law was passed in local government with a requirement quota of 30% female representation.

This was a pretty bold move because in the Ukraine women actually made up less than 5% of government.

In the last three or four years there has been quite a move forwards in pushing more female candidates, indeed to be a female candidate is seen as a positive thing in the Ukraine.

But we’ve only reached that quota of 30% at the level of village councils. City councils, county councils and mayors aren’t there yet, and at the level of governors which are appointed by the president there are 25 governors in Ukraine, only one of which is a woman.

Only 12.5% of parliamentarians are women. We do much better at the cabinet minister level with six women out of 25 ministers. That makes 24%, which is much better than at the parliamentary level. But what is significant is that women make up almost 50% of deputy ministers. Again, women are represented in those positions, but always second or third tier. Never really at the top level.

Shake my hand

I was raised in the US and brought up in a family where my parents taught me from day one that being a girl doesn’t matter, that you do what you want to do and that we will support you.

I never saw being a woman as some sort of a problem. It means that I am very bold compared to a lot of women in the Ukraine. There, when men come into the room, they shake hands with only the men in the room, they don’t shake women’s hands. I always stick my hand out and make sure that they shake my hand too. And now they come up and shake my hand every time. They know that I’m not going to tolerate them not doing that and they treat me as an equal.

As a result, I’m often invited to speak to young women and to have them understand that they can be leaders and they can be women too. One does not conflict with the other. The reason that I speak to these girls is because we don’t share our knowledge and experience enough with the younger generation. We’ve gone through quite a bit and we can help build their characters and give them our experience so that they don’t have to go through the difficulties that we went through in life.

Advice for life

I tell them three things. The first thing is that if you’re a woman and you want to be a leader, the most important thing you should do is to be yourself.

You can’t fake being someone else and being a leader. People will see through that straight away.

For instance, I’m 56 years old, I’m a radiologist and I wear comfortable shoes. That’s just the way it is. In the Ukraine, all the female ministers wear high heels, they all wear Chanel suits and they’re all made up and dressed up.

I’m not.

I was surprised in the first few days when I walked into the ministry of health that when journalists would stop to speak to me they always filmed my shoes. I would say: ‘My face is over here. I’m speaking to you why are you filming my shoes?’ They were commenting about my shoes. ‘Look at her shoes. How can she have shoes like that?’

They would never do that to a male politician. So I tell girls to wear the shoes that they want to wear. If you want to wear high heels, then wear high heels, but if you don’t, then don’t. Be comfortable with yourself and be yourself. Don’t change to be someone else’s image of a leader because then you will never be a good leader.

The second thing I talk to them about is networking. Sometimes women can undermine other women out of a sense of jealousy, or some sense of injustice.


They ask themselves: ‘Why did this woman get promoted and not me?’ One of the most important things we can do is to help each other. Encourage women to make friends with each other, to go out together, to help one another when it comes to problems and to share their experiences.

Networking is extremely important. This is especially so for women who are juggling both work and their private lives and don’t necessarily have anybody to talk to about their unique problems.

The father of your children or your partner might not understand what it is that you’re going through, but another woman who is in the same position will.

The last thing, and this is incredibly important, is not to compromise your own position. Never compromise with evil just to get something done.

Be careful what job you take, whom you’re working with, and where the money comes from. You need to come home every night and look your children in the eye and feel that what you are doing is the right thing. If you don’t do that, you won’t be a good leader. You will not be able to continue to work and it will have a negative impact on both your work and home life.

These are the three things that I tell young girls when I talk to them about how they should try to model themselves when they’re going into leadership positions. But it isn’t just for young women, it’s for each and every one of us.

Taking a stand

When I came into the ministry I was offered a bribe. And the first thing that I then did was that I called the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.

A one-year investigation followed, and I had to wear a hidden camera and microphones
in order to get the person who had offered me a bribe arrested. That example shows how we should never compromise with something with which we disagree.

We need to make bold moves and by making bold moves, being sure of ourselves,
by wearing our comfortable shoes and having the network of women around us we can then become great leaders. Whether it is in healthcare, whether it is in the private or the public sector, whether we are men or we are women. But, let’s stick together because that is the only way that we’re going to make things work.

This world needs women in more leadership positions.