International Women’s Day, which lands on March 8th each year, looks to celebrate the achievements and plight of women and girls across the world, who so often face barriers and pitfalls due to inequality. Over the course of 2020 and 2021 the world has faced the horrific consequences of, and endured the direct effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Much hope lay in science and its fast development of a vaccine, which was delivered in record time.
Now many countries are undertaking the vital rollout of vaccination programs to bring an end to the health crisis. BioNTech’s co-founder, Özlem Türeci, said that the speed of producing a viable vaccine can be credited to the fact that more than fifty percent of its workforce is female.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved in the UK and was made in just 11 months. In a briefing with the World Health Organization, Türeci said: “At BioNTech, women make up 54% of our total workforce and 45% of top management. We like to think that being a gender-balanced team has been critical to making the seemingly impossible possible – developing a Covid-19 vaccine within 11 months without shortcuts.”
However, she pointed also out that the fact that women were still so underrepresented in decision making roles in medicine was “destroying value” for stakeholders, and that the lack of gender equity in patient care, medical research and the biopharma industry is “obvious everyday”.
WHO data suggests that women only occupy 25% of decision-making roles despite making up 70% of the global healthcare workforce. Türeci stated that “the higher the ranks, the more value-destroying [is] the lost opportunity of mobilizing precious talent.”
The sentiment that women’s contributions allowed for the successful development of the vaccine is also echoed in the production of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Professor Sarah Gilbert, developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and founder of Vaccitech, stated that: “On the vaccine team in Oxford, two-thirds are female and all have worked incredibly hard for over a year, often while dealing with family responsibilities. However, of the senior positions on the team, only one-third are women.”
Stating that she was now examining the barriers that women face at Oxford University, and that “there are concerns that the pandemic has had more of an effect on the careers and livelihoods of women than men, and as we begin to make our plans for recovery we must not neglect this.”
There is a plethora of evidence that women are vital in science and medicine and addressing the barriers that women face in these roles is essential for the betterment of all. Science Business wrote: ‘I would like to stress that having more women in science serves another, maybe even greater purpose: better science. The reason that we could start vaccinations in less than a year from the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe is because of the discoveries of amazing women scientists.
Because of Katalin Karikó, a scientist from Hungary that since 1990 has worked tirelessly on developing mRNA technologies that are now at the basis of our COVID-19 vaccines. Because of Özlem Türeci, a German physician, scientist and entrepreneur who co-founded BioNTech, the first company to receive vaccine approval from the European Medicines Agency. Because of all the women in research and innovation across Europe and the world that have contributed to new treatments, diagnostics and vaccines.’
Gender inequality has been a prevalent and growingly prominent topic of discussion when it comes to medicine, and not only in the workforce but also in the level of care that women are receiving when it comes to their personal health. Recently the UK government launched a campaign to survey women across the UK on their experiences of healthcare in an aim to begin to close the ‘gender health gap’.
Evidence has suggested that female specific conditions are under researched, women are not receiving the level of care needed, are more likely to be misdiagnosed and generally although women are likely to live longer their level of health poorer than men for a larger portion of their lives. Reasons for a gender health gap has been pointed to a historical lack of research and overlooking of women’s health conditions.
On the government’s move to better tackle the gender health gap in the UK, Janet Lindsay, Director at women’s health research charity Wellbeing of Women said:
‘The research landscape is also bleak. Women’s health research has not been prioritized, which means there are still important gaps in our knowledge and a lack of effective treatment options across all areas of women’s health. As one of the only funders of women’s health research, Wellbeing of Women believes that only by ensuring that research, evidence and data support improvements in women’s health can we improve outcomes for women. When we get it right for women, everyone benefits.’