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Gender equality at BioNTech made the impossible possible, founder says

Tess de la Mare, PA
·3-min read

The co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech has credited its speed at producing a viable vaccine to the fact its workforce is more than 50% female.

Speaking on International Women’s Day, Dr Ozlem Tureci also said the fact women are so under-represented in decision-making roles in medicine was “destroying value” for stakeholders.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved in the UK and Dr Tureci said it was BioNTech’s balanced workforce that “made the impossible possible” in creating a jab in just 11 months.

Dr Tureci told a World Health Organisation (WHO) briefing the lack of gender equality in patient care, medical research and the biopharm industry is “obvious every day”.

She added: “The higher the ranks, the more value-destroying (is) the lost opportunity of mobilising precious talent.”

According to WHO data, women make up 70% of the global health and care workforce, but occupy just 25% of decision-making roles.

Dr Tureci 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.”

She said she was ready to “continue the marathon” of bringing Covid-19 under control with the women in her company and worldwide, adding: “This is why I very much want to see women enabled today and also tomorrow.”

Her words were echoed by the University of Oxford’s Professor Sarah Gilbert – co-founder of Vaccitech and the developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Prof Gilbert told the briefing: “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.”

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Prof Gilbert said she was now working to understand the barriers to promotion women face at Oxford University, particularly as they are so well represented at junior levels.

“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,” she said.

The Prime Minister paid tribute to Prof Gilbert and several others in a video posted on social media on Monday to celebrate all the women on the front line of the UK’s Covid-19 response.

Boris Johnson said Prof Gilbert’s work “helped to accelerate the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, meaning that manufacturing and the rigorous testing regime started early”.

In February, WHO launched its Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative to increase the number of women in leadership roles and promote equal pay.

It also aims to improve working conditions by protecting women from sexual harassment and violence and ensure equal access to personal protective equipment and vaccines for women and men.