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Inspiring through innovation

Image: Richard Townshend [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

International Women’s Day: Amanda Solloway says the way to break barriers is backing female pioneers

This year it seems particularly fitting that we are celebrating International Women’s Day during British Science Week.

In what has been an immensely challenging 12 months for the whole country as we’ve tackled Covid-19, one thing has become crystal clear: our reliance on brilliant women in science and innovation.

You only have to look at the UK’s world-leading vaccine research programme to see the remarkable role women have played in efforts to defeat this virus and get us back to normality.

As we follow our roadmap out of lockdown, I think of women such as Kate Bingham, who spearheaded our highly successful Vaccine Taskforce and had the foresight to secure the UK early access to over 450 million doses of eight of the world’s most promising vaccines so far.

And we simply wouldn’t have reached the incredible milestone of vaccinating over 20 million people with their first dose of coronavirus vaccine without the heroic team at the University of Oxford, including Professors Sarah Gilbert, Catherine Green and Teresa Lambe, who worked night and day to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

These efforts, marvelled at by the whole nation, have broken barriers by demonstrating what women can achieve in science and innovation. 

Providing a path

As science minister, it is a personal priority of mine that we bottle this scientific spirit, while ensuring that we provide a clear path for the next generation of innovators so they can fulfil their aspirations—whether in the lab, in business or elsewhere. 

But to do that we need to make sure we identify our best and brightest women and back them to the hilt—instilling them with the confidence to succeed while continuing to help level the playing field in industries that are still dominated by men.

I say this speaking from experience—I simply didn’t have the confidence to pursue a career in politics until I was 50. 

More broadly, we know women still make up less than around 15% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) workforce in the UK.

That is why the government has introduced a range of schemes to address this imbalance—from creating nearly 600 apprenticeship opportunities open to young women in traditionally male dominated industries, such as space engineering and data science, to funding the Stem Ambassadors Programme, a nationwide network of over 30,000 volunteers—45 per cent of whom are women—to help promote Stem to girls in their schools and communities.

While we must continue leading these efforts to directly inspire girls into Stem at a young age, the most impactful way to effect real change and break down barriers is to throw our weight behind today’s female pioneers—showcasing female innovation as the norm, not an anomaly.

Innovation Awards

That’s why today, on International Women’s Day, I am thrilled to be announcing support for 40 of the UK’s most trailblazing female innovators, through our flagship Women in Innovation Awards, to help develop and scale up their business innovations—many of which have been borne out of the pandemic.

These awards were launched in 2016 to help address the shocking reality that only one in seven applications for Innovate UK support came from women. As a result we now see the number of women leading applications for grants to Innovate UK has increased by 70 per cent.

The entrepreneurs we’re backing today in every corner of the country are all seeking to solve some our greatest societal challenges.

Lise Pape, the founder of health technology company Walk With Path in Essex, is developing a first-of-its-kind medical device to improve mobility for those suffering from chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Joan D’Arcy founder of Plastic@Bay, a pollution-fighting company in Durness, Scotland is on a mission to clean up the UK’s beaches by creating local ocean plastic recycling facilities in our coastal communities. 

And Samantha Bunyan, co-founder of Cecence in Salisbury, is seeking to decarbonise the aerospace industry, by providing eco-friendly alternatives to the current interior products of UK aeroplanes, many of which are still using carbon-intensive materials. 

Each of these inspiring women will receive a £50,000 cash boost and a bespoke package of mentoring and business support to help drive forward pioneering products and services that will help boost our economy. 

Choose to challenge

By empowering our most visionary female entrepreneurs, not only will we harness more diverse solutions to global challenges such as climate change and disease, but we will also create role models to inspire young women and girls to continue challenging the status quo through innovation. 

Whether it be the formidable female scientists in Oxford developing a lifesaving vaccine or the awe-inspiring entrepreneurs driving forward products and services to change our society for the better, young girls will see with their own eyes the real-world impact this is having and believe they can do it. 

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #ChooseToChallenge—challenging inequality where we see it, while marking the achievements of brilliant women.

In a year where we have faced a challenge like never before in Covid-19, let’s celebrate female innovation coming to the fore, and use this ingenuity as a blueprint for building back better.

Amanda Solloway is the UK’s Minister for Science, Research and Innovation and MP for Derby North