The women who inspire me
To mark International Women’s Day, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security Shirley-Anne Somerville blogs about some of the women who inspire her, past and present.
International Women’s Day is about celebrating women’s achievements and the impact women have on society – which so often goes unrecognised.
I think of women like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist whose discovery of radio pulsars won the Nobel Prize for Physics – but not for her, for her thesis supervisor.
Or Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician, who died last month. Her work on the trajectories of spacecraft continues to influence the work of NASA today – but her role was not widely known until the release of the film Hidden Figures in 2016 which highlighted the racism as well as sexism that she and her colleagues faced.
It is often women who mount the most determined campaigns for change. Like Fiona Drouet – whose student daughter Emily took her own life in 2016, after experiencing domestic abuse. In response to this terrible personal tragedy, Fiona launched the Emilytest campaign – bringing significant change to the way universities across Scotland respond to gender-based violence and student mental health and making a significant contribution to ensuring that students can access the help and support they need and that campuses are safer places for women and girls.
Sylvia Douglas, who spent much of her teenage life in residential care, defied the odds to gain a degree and work in mental health for East Renfrewshire Council. Now she has set up the social enterprise MsMissMrs to help empower women and girls, particularly those from deprived areas or who have had a difficult start in life.
Of course, you don’t have to be an adult to make a change. In the early 2000s, it was seven teenagers who came to be known as the Glasgow Girls who lobbied against the harsh treatment of asylum seekers, while still pupils at Drumchapel High School. Their campaigning caught the imagination and therefore raised public awareness and changed the nature of political debate about refugees and asylum seekers – and spawned a musical and TV drama about their activism.
We shouldn’t forget the great Scottish women of history, like Elsie Inglis, who trained as a doctor in the 19th century – when women training in medicine was such a novelty that she set up her own Medical College for Women in Glasgow, and was ultimately interned by the Germans, after setting up medical units during World War One.
These leading lights should not be forgotten. But neither should we overlook the role of those who are having an impact today.
Just this week I read a story about Scottish scientist Kate Broderick, who is working tirelessly to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Kate, 42, has been fighting infectious diseases for more than 20 years including successful vaccines for ebola, zika and Mers (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
She says she feels a ‘personality responsibility’ to do everything in her power to develop a vaccine and averages just a couple of hours sleep each day.
By demanding change and leading their fields, it is women like Kate who will continue to inspire those who come after them.