Suffrage Science podcast salutes the achievements of female scientists

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Award-winner Sally Davies, a former chief medical officer for England

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Suffrage Science

First Create the Media, with MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences

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ON 8 March every year, millions of people celebrate International Women’s Day, a slot in the global calendar that is both a unifying recognition of the achievements of women and an urgent warning that gender inequality is still rife.

Science, of course, is no exception to this. Women still make up just 28 per cent of the STEM workforce, while men dominate the highest-paying sectors, such as engineering. A decade ago, to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and to help address these crucial gaps, the Suffrage Science awards were born.

The Suffrage Science podcast, hosted weekly by science communicator Kat Arney, explains the prizes’ origins by shining a spotlight on past winners, women who have achieved extraordinary things in their careers despite facing an all-too-familiar bias and a lack of opportunities.

In the first episode, Arney talks to the founders of the project: Amanda Fisher, director of the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences, and Vivienne Parry, a science writer and broadcaster. As Arney explains, the awards work by selecting the next winners based on nominations from previous ones, thereby helping to grow a global network of inspirational female role models. The awards, bespoke pieces of jewellery that pay homage to scientific research and the suffrage movement, are passed on to new winners every two years.

Since 2011, 148 women across many scientific disciplines and countries have won awards. Their impact and reach surprised Parry – as she tells Arney, they have seen some early nominees become fine scientists, heading their own departments and creating a new cohort of great scientists.

The episode also features women’s rights activist Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the UK suffragette movement.

In episode two, Arney talks to Sally Davies, the first female master of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and former chief medical officer for England, who won a Suffrage Science award in 2011. Among Davies’s many achievements – and the one she is most proud of, she tells Arney – was putting the global threat of antimicrobial resistance firmly on the UK’s radar.

Her successes were accompanied by the difficulties of simply being a woman, as she explains: “I’ve always felt throughout my career that I had to be better than the men to get the job, not as good as [them].”

Listening to Fisher and other guests, I felt connected to them through our shared struggles as women and the recognition of how deeply gender discrimination is etched into every aspect of our experience. But underlying this solidarity, a tough message remains: we haven’t made the progress in improving prospects for women that we like to think we have, says Fisher. For example, there is much to be done in addressing issues faced by women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The pandemic has widened the divide and even reversed progress in some cases, with women doing by far the majority of homeschooling and childcare, often putting their own jobs at risk. For Helen Pankhurst, there needs to be a new narrative. “Fundamentally, it’s about saying this isn’t good enough – this isn’t good enough for me, for the next generations, for those that came before us. We can and we must do better.”

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