The women in science who guided us through the pandemic

On International Women’s Day 2022, Jess Wade celebrates the shining lights of the past couple years

There’s no denying that the pandemic has hampered efforts towards equity and inclusion in science and education. Women researchers missed out on opportunities to submit important grant proposals and papers because of caring responsibilities. Early career researchers on precarious, short-term contracts had to pause experiments – losing data and career-defining opportunities to present their work. School students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds didn’t have access to the technology or space to keep up with online courses.

But the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of science and technology as never before. I’ve spent every evening for the past two years like I spent every evening for the two years before it: editing Wikipedia – documenting the biographies of scientists, engineers and activists who are all too often overlooked. At the beginning of March 2020, I decided to focus on the shining lights who were guiding our way out of the pandemic. Here are a few people who have brightened my world and tackled inequality over the past couple years.

Take Sharmadean Reid, the brilliant businesswoman who is on a mission to create economic and social empowerment for women through technology. In 2018, Reid transformed her Soho nail bar into an online platform to support women working in the beauty industry, raising £4 million in seed funding to do so. Last year, Reid’s Beautystack evolved into The Stack World: an online members club offering women business, education and networking opportunities. Even though only 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs are women, companies with over 30% women in leadership are more successful than those without.

The pandemic has exposed and destabilised women and girls’ fundamental rights, with disruptions in access to healthcare and increases in gender-based violence. Oni and Uché Blackstock are twin sisters who worked on the frontline during New York’s first wave of COVID-19. They have each recently set up a health advocacy group: Advancing Health Equity, which looks to identify and address factors that contribute to health inequities, and Health Justice, which helps health organisations to promote equity in their workplace and community. In 2023, Penguin will publish Uché’s memoir Legacy: A Black Physician Reckons with Racism in Medicine.

Another pioneer is Rhea Boyd – a physician who studies and teaches about the health impacts of child poverty. During the pandemic, she developed THE CONVERSATION, a campaign to provide information about COVID-19 to Black, Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities.

The leading vaccine developers were women, too: Kizzmekia Corbett (Moderna/NIH), Sarah Gilbert (Oxford/AstraZeneca), Kathrin Jansen (Pfizer), Katalin Karikó (mRNA technology for Moderna and Pfizer), Nita Patel (Novavax), Özlem Türeci (BioNTech). As were the epidemiologists and public health researchers who were the loudest in holding global leaders to account: Christina Pagel, Susan Michie, Deepti Gurdasani, Muge Cevik, Trisha Greenhalgh and the nerdy girls at Dear Pandemic.

As the world became increasingly reliant on big tech during the pandemic, the work of algorithm ethicists was ever more important. Take Meredith Whittaker, the former Googler who led the 2018 walkouts in protest of how Google handled harassment allegations, and is now Faculty Director at the AI Now Institute and Senior Advisor on AI to the Federal Trade Commission. Also at Google was Timnit Gebru, who in 2020 was fired from Google’s Ethical AI team, and created the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR) a year later. DAIR is dedicated to conducting community-rooted AI research and documenting the harms of AI on marginalised groups.

Finally, the pandemic united activists and strengthened their efforts in fighting inequality. Soma Sara used Instagram to share reports of sexual harassment, misogyny and sexual assault in UK schools and universities. Her campaign (Everyone’s Invited) has so far given a voice to over 50,000 people. It was covered in national newspapers and prompted investigations in some of the UK’s most prestigious private schools, as well as an Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges.

The hardships caused by the pandemic are widespread and will be long-lasting. Collective, evidence-based activism from intergenerational, interdisciplinary and international networks is essential as we fight to eliminate gender bias and accelerate equality. We can’t let the pandemic threaten the hard-won equity gains achieved by the generations of women who have come before us.


Top image: This is Engineering / Unsplash