Women have been central to global pandemic responses, not only because they account for around two-thirds of the healthcare and scientific research workforce overall, but because more than ever before, women in positions of leadership have been driving political, scientific and public health efforts to tackle a global public health emergency.
The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium was established in April of 2020 to generate SAR-CoV-2 genome data to public health agencies, healthcare providers, policy makers and government. This was a highly successful endeavour that placed the UK at the leading edge of the generation and use of genomics for public health good. Genomes were generated across the UK through a network of capabilities based in academic institutions, the four public health agencies of the UK, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Furthermore, all genomes, methods and analysis tools became rapidly available to others.
Women have been vital to the many successes of COG-UK, whether in sequencing laboratories, bioinformatic tool development, data analysis, public health, operations, communication, administration or leadership. However, the accomplishments of women within the consortium (and more generally across global pandemic responses) have not always been as visible as those of male colleagues, which was one of the original reasons behind the launch of the Women in COG series.
Looking back, COG-UK was established in a matter of weeks by a small group of volunteers. The principal investigators who were leading efforts on behalf of most COG-UK partners were predominantly male, despite the UK benefiting from a wealth of highly experienced women working in pathogen genomics and public health. We have worked hard to redress the balance since those early months, through the Women in COG series, activities for International Women’s Day, our unsung hero awards and by ensuring that female voices have been heard at all meetings, seminars and science showcases.
It was a conscious choice that the Women in COG series was a forum and resource for women in the consortium. As such the series sought not only to showcase the lives and work of women from across the COG-UK network, but also to invite inspirational women from outside of the consortium to share their experiences. The series also benefitted from the inclusion of men involved in the consortium and wider pandemic response who have been prominent supporters, allies and advocates for women in science. At the outset, it was not clear how big and influential the Women in COG series would become and how many inspirational women would give up their time to help us see life before and during the pandemic through so many different lenses. It was also not in the original plan to write a book!
The book that is being launched (Snapshots of Women in COG: Scientific Excellence during the COVID-19 pandemic) showcases the experiences not just of those interviewed for the monthly Women in COG interview series but also those that have helped to deliver the COG-Train global genomic training programme. It also highlights COG-UK consortium members whose efforts have been recognised with internal and external awards. The internal awards were part of the COG-UK Unsung Hero awards and International Women’s Day 2021 celebrations. We cannot be comprehensive – the Women in COG initiative began as a small idea and grew organically. The interview series focused largely, but not exclusively on women in genomics. So, there will be women who have been very high profile throughout the pandemic and who are not included. We can only ask for leniency, and an acknowledgement that we have captured many of the women involved in SARS-CoV-2 genomics in the UK.
Women have shown endless resourcefulness and tireless devotion to making a genuine difference in the world, whether in our daily duties or in working to create positive spaces for women to thrive. Collectively, the experiences and discussion shared in the book paint a positive picture of women who have developed careers, moved into positions of leadership and responsibility, and received a good deal of support, despite having to overcome some outdated attitudes and barriers along the way. By providing a distillation of the experiences of some of the people that have been involved in the consortium and wider pandemic response, we hope that this becomes a cherished book for everyone that has contributed to COG-UK, COG-Train and the Women in COG series. It is also a celebration of the collective efforts of so many women and their supporters during the pandemic, and a tangible memento of what proved to be a highly influential proportion of our careers and lives.
Professor Sharon Peacock, Executive Director of COG-UK
You can download the book here.