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Make no mistake about it – women scientists are at the heart of our response to the pandemic

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

 

The commentary around the role of women scientists in the media during this pandemic has been depressingly negative so far, with headlines and tweets focussing on the woeful lack of female experts in the coverage and the suggestion that female voices are being systematically excluded. Typical headlines include:

Thankfully, my experience is more positive. Since the start of the pandemic I have been enjoying loads of contact with amazing female scientists, putting them up for interview on a daily basis and running press briefings with them every few days. We know that women are under-represented at the highest levels of science so it’s not surprising to find that disparity reflected in the media. But fewer women doesn’t mean no women and I baulk at the suggestion that women scientists have been drowned out by men – not for me they haven’t!

People care about the media profile of female scientists for good reasons. One is that the media tends to throw a harsh spotlight on the real world under-representation of women at the top in science. Another, and the one I am interested in in this blog, is the belief that one way of helping advance equality is to ensure that young women deciding on their future careers can see themselves reflected in female experts appearing on our TV screens. I’m not sure if there is any hard evidence on this, but it seems reasonable to assume that if young women only see male scientists fighting this virus they may feel that science is not the career for them.

 

But here’s the thing. There can scarcely be a single young woman in the country who has not seen female scientists everywhere in this pandemic. The media appetite for expertise has never been greater and women scientists have been highly visible throughout. This could be my most boring blog yet if I just list off names, but indulge me whilst I throw in just some of the scientists who have decided to share their expertise with the public through the media. Scientists like Professors Linda Bauld, Devi Sridhar, Anne Johnson, Yvonne Doyle, Azra Ghani, Trish Greenhalgh, Trudie Lang, Sian Griffiths, Susan Michie, Eleanor Riley, Allyson Pollock, Christina Pagel, Sheila Bird, Christl Donnelly, Julia Gog, Catherine Noakes and Heidi Larson, and Doctors Jenny Harries, Nathalie MacDermott, Rosalind Eggo, Mary Ramsay, Alison Pittard and Charlotte Summers.

These are not women who have made one or two media appearances. They are leading scientists working on key aspects of the pandemic, often involved in groups advising government and who have appeared in the media consistently over many months. I realise not everyone is a news junkie like me, but it’s not unusual to see many of these experts pop up multiple times a day as I channel hop from Sky to BBC to ITN.

Who can have failed to see Prof Sarah Gilbert in the media? The inspirational Oxford scientist was one of the few who saw a pandemic coming and had been working on a prototype vaccine that she swiftly adapted to SARS-CoV-2. Scroll forward a year and three separate studies have suggested that one dose of either this vaccine or the Pfizer one is highly effective at preventing disease and hospitalisations in older people. Sarah is not only quoted and interviewed in hundreds of news reports every time there is a significant development on the Oxford vaccine, but also featured in longer profile pieces and interviews on flagship programs like the Andrew Marr show. The powerful and inspiring Panorama on the Oxford vaccine made by Fergus Walsh, which attracted an audience of over two million, was dominated by Prof Gilbert and the female scientists who lead on the scientific development of the vaccines as well as the clinical team running the trials and the manufacturing teams.

Many female scientists are playing a leading role in the key prevalence and serology studies that have been such an essential component of the public health response to this outbreak. Prof Helen Ward from Imperial College London is one of the top scientists on REACT-2, the antibody surveillance study. Prof Daniela De Angelis is the Programme Leader of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge and leads the Nowcast and Forecast study which monitors real-time tracking of the pandemic. Prof Kathy Rowan is the Director of ICNARC, a research centre which has reported since the pandemic began on the hospital care of critically ill COVID patients. Prof Sarah Walker from Oxford is the Chief Investigator and Academic Lead for the COVID-19 Infection Survey with the ONS, and Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England runs the SIREN study focussing on measuring antibodies in NHS workers. Prof Angela McLean, one of the UK’s leading epidemiological modellers, is the deputy chief scientific adviser, sits on SAGE and co-chairs SPI-M, the independent modelling group that sits year round and is currently feeding into SAGE. Her appearances at Downing Street press briefings and Science and Technology Committee sessions have been a highlight for me, though her disappearance from the former might be a result of her straight-talking style.

When news of the first worrisome variant (now known as the B.1.1.7 Kent variant) broke in the run up to Christmas, our frenzied ring round to set up an emergency press briefing led us to Sharon Peacock, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge. Sharon was appointed to lead COG-UK, the group set up in April last year to deliver large scale and rapid whole genome sequencing of the virus. Since then, we have had Sharon at four press briefings and put her up for countless interviews. At the most recent one on the Brazil variant, I had several texts from science journalists watching saying ‘How good is Sharon Peacock’. A month after our first work with Sharon, we ran the press briefing for the launch of another new national research project, the ‘G2P-UK’ National Virology Consortium, set up to study the effects of emerging mutations in SARS-CoV-2. Leading it is Prof Wendy Barclay, Head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and, as a member of NERVTAG and SAGE, a major player in our pandemic response. These press briefings on variants typically attract over 50 science journalists writing and recording for news outlets reaching millions.

If we look at some of the scientific organisations that have played a critical role at the heart of the UK’s response we also see many prominent women – not in the rank and file, but at the very top. The MHRA, which has rightly earned plaudits for giving super fast approvals for new drug trials like RECOVERY and the speedy authorisation of new vaccines, is run by Dr June Raine. The news outlets who tried their damnedest to stir up a scandal about the Vaccine Task Force’s spending on independent science communications are now falling over themselves to write glowing editorials about Kate Bingham, whose remarkable leadership is widely acknowledged to have been critical to the successful vaccine roll out. The Medical Research Council (MRC), which has provided significant funding for RECOVERY, COG-UK, PRINCIPLE, OpenSAFELY, HDR UK and the Oxford vaccine, is run by Prof Fiona Watt. I could go on. The Joint Biosecurity Centre, UKRI, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Statistical Society. All playing a major role in the pandemic. All run by women.

 

Of course, there are things that could be better. There is a smaller pool of women for the SMC to call on for comment and to fill broadcast bids. I’ve noticed we get far fewer offers of opinion pieces from female scientists than from male ones, and some women need more encouragement and prodding to put themselves forward for interview. Edinburgh immunologist Prof Eleanor Riley, a firm favourite with science journalists for her accessible explanations of bewilderingly complex questions on immunity, recently made the point that even when women scientists have all the expertise and media training required, they still need to be ‘invited in’. Eleanor kindly said that the SMC has ‘invited her in’ during this pandemic and that she has done more media work than at any time in her distinguished career.

I also detect more reluctance amongst some female experts to be put in a situation where they will be asked about issues outside their area of expertise or to answer questions about policy not science. Prof Helen Ward spoke from the floor at a session on the media and COVID to say that she had spoken out on broader issues at the outset of the pandemic to vent her frustration at the lack of preparedness and urgency in the government response, but had made a conscious decision some weeks in to restrict her media work to the areas of COVID-19 that she is actively researching. To be honest, I find that a refreshing attitude – the SMC has struggled at times during this crisis to urge experts to keep in their lanes.

Another thing that I’ve seen in some of the commentary that does not ring true is the suggestion that the predominance of men reflects the media’s bias against women. I would say the opposite is true. I’m sure most science press officers will testify that broadcasters in particular now routinely ask for female guests. Frankly some producers would prefer any female rather than the best expert on the subject in hand, something the SMC and the women we work with actively resist. Crude numerical targets achieved at the expense of quality and the best expertise are not doing anyone any good.

 

The SMC has been organising media training for female scientists for a year now, delivered by the brilliant RNA Media, and have recently secured additional funding from the Medical Research Council and the NIHR to run twenty sessions for scientists working on COVID-19. We have been overwhelmed by recruits and we are making sure that the scientists who have been through the training are added to our database and encouraged to use their training to good effect.

I have spoken before about my admiration for the scientific community in COVID-19. These scientists are our means of understanding every aspect of the virus and their discoveries are our route out of the pandemic. They have been engaging with the media and public from the very start as part and parcel of the scientific response to the pandemic. Far from being absent or drowned out, women have been a central part of that response and celebrating that sends a powerful message to young women considering their future career – you are very definitely invited in.

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