Here are (some of) the women pioneering in response to the pandemic

11 Feb 2021298 Views

Image: © Hakim/Stock.adobe.com

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, here are some of the women scientists making a difference during the pandemic.

Today (11 February) is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. And as the pandemic presses on, this year’s theme is ‘Women scientists at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19’.

Now in its sixth year, the international event began in 2015 when the UN General Assembly made the decision to formally recognise the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. It’s implemented each year by UNESCO and UN Women.

According to the UN, less than 30pc of the world’s researchers are women. From a young age, it says, women’s enrolment in subjects across ICT, natural science, maths, statistics, engineering, manufacturing and construction is particularly low around the world. Unfortunately, that won’t come as news to many. As Johnson & Johnson’s Anna Rafferty recently told us, that’s why it’s crucial we behave like actors instead of allies to support women in STEM.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t need to be an International Day of Women and Girls in Science. But until there is gender equality in the world of science, it’s important to extend the spotlight to highlight the many incredible things women and girls are doing in STEM and inspire the next generation.

At Siliconrepublic.com, we get to chat to women doing great work in science and technology on a regular basis. Around this time last year, we published a list of 20 women working in AI, machine learning and data science. It features Abeba Birhane, who is carrying out fascinating research in cognitive science, and Dr Suzanne Little, an associate professor at Dublin City University’s School of Computing and a researcher in multimedia semantics and video analysis at SFI research centre Insight.

Highlighting women’s contributions to science and technology is essential. But it’s also important to note the challenges that can arise. As Julie Hogan of Women in Technology and Science Ireland recently said, this can include being excluded from promotions.

“You know that feeling early in your career when you realised that ability and hard work was still not going to be enough to get you a fair shake at promotion? It’s still a big problem, and we’d like to measure it and start fixing it,” she said.

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“If that happens to be when they’re thinking of starting a family, it can be enough to make them consider dropping out of the workforce or to leave the STEM field. In fast-moving technologies, if you’re out of the loop for a few years, it can be very hard to break back in, and Ireland is losing a lot of talent.”

Women at the forefront of Covid-19 research

The UN is celebrating various women and their contributions to the Covid-19 response for this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Anika Chebrolu is one example. At just 14 years of age, Chebrolu discovered a potential new therapy for Covid-19 using in-silicon methodology.

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Image: UN Women

Long before Covid-19 hit, research conducted by women also laid the foundations for a vaccine. UN Women highlighted the work of Katalin Karikó, whose discoveries about the therapeutic potential of messenger RNA were deemed too radical and too risky to fund but are integral to some of today’s vaccines.

And one of the key people working in the area of vaccines is Dr Özlem Türeci, the chief medical officer at BioNTech. The company, which Türeci co-founded in 2008, developed the first approved messenger RNA-based vaccine against Covid-19.

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Image: UN Women

Beyond these examples, UN Women says that women account for 70pc of global health and social care workers, putting them at the “heart of the Covid-19 response even though they are often underrepresented in decision-making and leadership”.

If you want to learn more about women working in the response to Covid-19 and other areas of research, UN Women has set up a public Trello board filled with information.

“The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the critical role of women researchers in different stages of the fight against Covid-19, from advancing the knowledge on the virus to developing techniques for testing, and finally to creating the vaccine against the virus,” the UN said.

“At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic also had a significant negative impact on women scientists, particularly affecting those at the early stages of their career.”

The UN added that this may have further widened the existing gender gap in science and revealed “the gender disparities in the scientific system, which need to be addressed by new policies, initiatives and mechanisms to support women and girls in science”.

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021

editorial@siliconrepublic.com