International Women's Day: The Sun celebrates by hailing heroines who helped Britain beat Covid

TODAY is International Women’s Day – a chance to celebrate female achievements and to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality across the globe.

With our #riseupandshine campaign, The Sun is celebrating the women who have risen to the challenge in a very difficult past year.

They have led the creation of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines, rallied our communities and kept us entertained and informed.

Below, an esteemed British scientist and member of the House of Lords backs our campaign and champions her female peers in the scientific field.

Alison Maloney and Rebecca Pocklington also bring you other heroines of the pandemic.

‘It is the female scientists, technicians and mathematicians who have proved vital to the global efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic’

By Baroness Susan Greenfield

FOR months their pictures have appeared on the front pages of our newspapers.

Clad in white coats, our scientists are beacons of hope as they sit in their laboratories hour after hour, day after day, working tirelessly in the fight against Covid-19. And what’s particularly striking is just how many of those pictures are of women.

It is the female scientists, technicians and mathematicians who, from designing cutting-edge equipment to developing and producing the vaccines helping the world to return to normal, have proved vital to the global efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Some will enter the history books. Most of us will now have heard of Dr Ozlem Tureci, co-founder of the organisation which helped produce the very first Pfizer vaccine against Covid last year, and Professor Sarah Gilbert, the project lead on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Yet there are also legions of others, whose names we will never know, playing their part in the battle.

It is the determined efforts of our scientists that are seeing us through the pandemic, alongside the devotion and care of those working in our intensive care units.

For all the horrors of the pandemic, it has put science at the centre of our day-to-day lives. And today of all days, the female contribution should be celebrated because the UK’s growing science, engineering and technology industries continue to cry out for powerful female role models.

According to the campaigning body Women into Science and Engineering, only 19 per cent of girls choose two STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and maths — at A level compared to 33 per cent of boys.


Women who do continue into a science-based career end up in a minority, making up just 23 per cent of people in core STEM occupations.

Numbers are slowly rising but the statistics show women have a tougher time reaching the top and staying there — often, I am sorry to say, still battling against latent sexism.

I have experienced, and continue to experience, some of that as a scientist of nearly 50 years’ standing.

Even today, after years of under-taking my own cutting-edge research and now running my own biotech company, I am sometimes called by my Christian name, while my male peers are addressed by their title.

Or I am told by senior scientists that I will get on with another scientist “because she’s a woman”.

The fact I still favour miniskirts and eyelash extensions also seems to confuse people. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me I don’t look like a scientist — as if there is a template, or an inbuilt conflict between looking glamorous and mathematical formulas.

But I’m grateful that at least I have not been sidelined, like so many pioneering female scientists in the past.

Women have been responsible for early sketches of the computer, the discovery of the DNA double helix and even splitting the atom, only to see these advancements claimed by men as their own.

While Jocelyn Bell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, credited as one of the most significant scientific achieve- ments of the 20th century, it was her male boss who received the Nobel Prize for it.

I was aware of none of this when I was growing up.

When I won a place at Oxford University, it was to study philosophy and psychology.

It was Jane Mellanby, my professor in experimental psychology, who told me she thought I could be a scientist.


She started me on the lifelong career which would see me explore everything from the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s to the impact of technology on the brain.

I went on to take a doctorate, where it was not unusual for me to be the only girl in the seminar room.

While there were female technicians, the hierarchy was nearly always male. It never bothered me, but I recall one of my peers telling me frequently that I was a “square peg in a round hole”.

Sometimes women don’t always help themselves in a world in which, I can testify, there is no shortage of alpha-male, chest-pumping egos.

You have to have a thick skin and be prepared to fight your corner because, while most of us understand “science” as a rather generic thing, it is actually very creative, personal and individual — it is your research and you interpret the data in a way that no one else will.

You have to stand up for your approach, and women can sometimes be reluctant to do that.

But what they sometimes lack in ego, they make up for in openness.

It may be a generalisation but, in my experience, female scientists tend to be more consensual, which means you can exchange ideas more readily.

You don’t have to cajole, flatter or walk on eggshells to get them to engage.

Imposter Syndrome, meanwhile, means we often work doubly hard — you have to be that little bit better to get on, while the things that your male colleagues suspect are a hindrance can actually be a help.

I smiled when I read that Professor Sarah Gilbert credited the steely focus she brought to her development of the Oxford vaccine to the skills she had honed while raising triplets.

I hope that seeing what she has achieved proves an inspiration to a new generation of female scientists and that, in time, the fact they are female becomes the least interesting thing about them.


‘We offer free virtual tutoring each week to disadvantaged kids’

JESSIE PITSILLIDES, 18: The A-level student is helping disadvantaged primary pupils through her free tutoring service, Mentor Jr.

Londoner Jessie says: “I’ve always been good at maths and volunteered at local primaries. When Covid came along, I realised I was in a great position to help with virtual learning.

“We started off with about ten tutors helping 15 families, now we have almost 150 tutors offering more than 300 hours of free weekly tutoring sessions to kids all around the UK.

“Initially I funded it with my babysitting money, but we are now applying for grants, because with my A-level studies it’s hard to keep on top of it all the time.

“It’s been lovely hearing from parents how their kids’ confidence has improved.”


‘We’ve stayed strong and help to keep others strong too’

CLAIRE SAUNDERS, 40: Millions of supermarket workers are putting them-selves on the front line every day and Claire is one of them.

The manager of a Co-op store in Essex says: “During the first lockdown people had more patience. But as it’s gone on there has been more abuse.

“In November, the Co-op launched a campaign for a law to prevent customers abusing staff. One in four of its front-line shop workers has experienced abuse.

“A guy was hurling abuse at me last week. Two customers were so worried about my safety they stayed until closing and then walked me to my car.

“Women in the super-market sector have been Covid heroes. We have stayed strong and helped to keep others strong.”


‘Lockdown brought our neighbourhood closer together, I’ve made so many friends’

MOLLY MAY, NINE: The youngster won a local award after keeping up the spirits of neighbours in Caerphilly, Glamorgan, throughout the pandemic.

She is also a youth ambassador for the anti-bullying charity Bullies Out.

She says: “During the first lockdown I couldn’t see my grandparents and I really missed them. 

"Then I thought if I'm feeling like this, other people who are stuck in their houses must feel the same way and I didn’t want anyone to feel alone. 

"I decided to make cards and write messages to put through the letterboxes of the neighbours, then I made word searches, wrote jokes and made craft gifts to cheer everyone up.

"For some neighbours, who were on their own, I offered to do the shopping.

"When the pandemic started we had only lived in the area for two years and we hadn't really managed to get to know people that much.

"Now, when we go for a walk, the neighbours wave from their houses and they put my cards in their windows, so I can see they like them.

"In the nice weather, people would come and chat on the doorstep then they’d talk to their neighbours as well, so everybody knows each other now.

"On my birthday, in May, I was really surprised to get cards from everyone in the street.

"We had a street party in the summer and a socially-distanced winter wonderland event at Christmas, for families.

"My three-year-old sister, Rosie, is now keen to get involved, and has been helping make cards. 

"Lockdown has brought us all closer together. I’ve made friends of all ages, right up to 90.”


‘Seeing people’s reactions makes it so worth it’

LORRAINE LEWIS, 36: Throughout the pandemic she has been helping cancer sufferers and their families by sending them care packages in hospitals, through her and husband Lee’s charity The Lewis Foundation.

Lorraine, from Northampton, says: “When the first lockdown hit, patients could not have visitors, so hospitals needed us more than ever.

“We pack the boxes with donations such as colouring books for adults, blankets and pocket radios, and have delivered nearly 18,000 gift packs since the first lockdown.

“Demand has soared in the pandemic, but seeing people’s reactions makes it so worth it.

“There has been an incredible drive to showcase women doing amazing things in their communities this year. It’s inspiring others as well.”


‘I thought we would clap once, but it ran for ten weeks’

ANNEMARIE PLAS, 36: Just three days after Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown, she launched the Clap For Carers movement. Four months later, he invited her to clap at Downing Street.

Annemarie says: “Standing on my doorstep in London, I’d never imagined I’d see so many of my neighbours clapping for the NHS.

"I came up with the idea in a bid to lift people’s spirits – but also in tribute to friends who worked in hospitals.

"I was surprised how big it grew and loved seeing royals like the Duchess of Cambridge getting involved.

"During the clap, I felt a real sense of unity. Being Dutch, I always felt a little bit like an outsider and that was completely gone. I felt part of the UK. 

"It made me connect with the people on my road and I started to have little chats with neighbours. 

"I thought we’d clap once – but it ran for 10 weeks and I even went to Downing Street and clapped with Boris Johnson.

"I don’t see myself as a Covid hero – the heroes are those women in the NHS and in the supermarkets, who get exposed to risk day in and day out, and still stand there with a smile on their face. 

"But I am honoured that I could contribute something that was positive in such a dark time.”


"The pandemic has seen a real rollback of women's rights."

Mum-of-two Joeli Brierley set up the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, in 2015, after being sacked by voicemail while expecting her first child.

Joeli says: “When the pandemic hit, we were inundated with calls from terrified pregnant women.

"They were placed in the vulnerable category but didn’t know whether they were safe travelling on public transport, whether their babies were at risk or what their legal rights were.  We didn’t have the answers, which was really hard. 

"Since then we've achieved a lot. We were instrumental in ensuring childcare bubbles could operate, because a third of families need childcare in order to work and that hadn't been considered in the early days.

"We also campaigned for under fives to be exempt from the ban on meeting outside because we were worried about new mums who were really isolated in the first lockdown. 

"Being on your own with a new baby, not knowing what you’re doing, is hard enough but in lockdown their mental health was rapidly deteriorating,  and it still is. About half of new mums now have some form of mental health issue. 

"The government has listened to us and changed policy on many things, including the way the job retention scheme impacted women on maternity pay. 

"But we are still campaigning to change the self employed income support scheme (SEISS) which saw women who had maternity leave in the last three years receiving as little as a third of what they would otherwise be entitled to.

"Sadly, the pandemic has seen a real rollback of women's rights but it really doesn't have to be this way. 

"For me, International Women's Day 2021 is a chance for us to be heard and hopefully listened to, about what's happening on the ground to these women. 

"If we're not careful, we will undo decades of work to improve gender equality in the blink of an eye. That is bad for the economy,  bad for the well-being of families and ultimately will have a negative impact on all of us.”


‘It was heartbreaking to hear of hospital staff Covid deaths’

KSHA NORBERT-NELSON, 35: The student paramedic features in a special edition of Inside The Ambulance, on the W channel tonight.

Ksha, from Abingdon, Oxon, says: “The first wave of the virus was scary. We were in the ambulance with Covid patients, not knowing what we were dealing with.

“The first wave of the Coronavirus was scary because we were sitting in the ambulance with positive patients not knowing what we were dealing with. 

"Hearing that ethic minorities were high risk, I was scared I would fall critically ill and worried about the effect it would have on my son Ashard, six.

"It was heartbreaking to hear about patients dying, especially when two staff members from the John Radcliffe hospital, including a porter I knew, died. 

"At first, people were nervous of calling an ambulance but after the restrictions eased we were doing seven callouts in a 12 hour shift with a 30 minute break, which was draining.

"Like all NHS staff, paramedics have been on the frontline throughout the pandemic and I’m glad I was chosen for Inside the Ambulance IWD special.

"It’s good for girls who want to be a paramedic to see people from diverse backgrounds in the ambulance service.”

Inside the Ambulance: Wonder Women airs tonight on W


"Don't close the door, just because you're not a guy.”

Jasmine Harrison, 21, became the youngest woman to row solo across the Atlantic on February 20, 2021.

Jasmine says: “Watching the boats sail into the dockyard at Antigua, at the finish line of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I swore I would one day do the same.

"I was 18, backpacking in the Caribbean, and had never picked up an oar. But last month, three years of tough training paid off when I became the youngest woman to row the Atlantic solo.

"The 3,000 mile journey from the Canary Islands took two months and was perilous at times. 

"The hardest part was the long days, battling a stormy ocean, where sometimes I rowed for 18 hours and didn’t get very far. 

"When it settled down I had other challenges, like things breaking and, at one point, the boat capsized.

"Everything happens fast so you have to think quickly and move on. You can’t allow yourself to be scared.

"Although I began training long before Covid 19 happened, the restrictions did cause logistical problems, with flights, getting the boat etc.

"When I reached Antigua, I was looking forward to a holiday, sitting in a bar and eating in a restaurant but, of course, everything is shut. 

"I only found out about the race because I happened to be there, and I think it’s hard for young women to learn about the opportunities out there.

"I hope I inspire others but I won’t say you should definitely do something adventurous or challenging. It's more about showing them the options. 

"Don't think that because you are a girl, or young, that you can't do something adventurous. Don't close the door, just because you're not a guy.”

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