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Inspirational women of 2020

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we remember 12 women who have inspired us over the past year with their minds, words and actions.

Inspirational women header

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Choose to challenge”, so we’ve come up with 12 inspirational women who have risen to the challenge over the past year, and inspired us to be better people. Whether they’ve challenged the political status quo, fought for equality or demonstrated that women are formidable during a crisis, there is a lot we can learn from them.

The past year has been more difficult than most, and we need role models like these women more than ever. On top of everything else, 2020 was also a tough year for gender equality, with disproportionate numbers of women losing their jobs due to the pandemic or having to leave jobs due to childcare responsibilities and a lack of government support.

Despite adversity, there has also been a lot of success for women over the past year, and we think it’s important to highlight these achievements. This post is the third in our series for International Women’s Day, following on from a discussion of women in tech at FutureLearn, and an exploration of what the future might look like for women in business

A number of these women were nominated by FutureLearn staff members as part of our women in tech interviews earlier this week. Here are our chosen inspirational women of 2020: 

1. Stacey Abrams 

Stacey Abrams recently became one of the most influential unelected political figures in America after her efforts on voter registration and turnout in the historically Republican state of Georgia led to the first Democratic win for the state in nearly three decades. She particularly made an impact in mobilising black voters in the state. The victory in Georgia was instrumental in Joe Biden’s overall presidential win. 

Abrams has been interested in social justice issues since she noticed examples of police brutality against African-Americans in the 90s, and first became a member of the Georgia House of Representatives in 2006. In 2018, she became the first black woman to be a major nominee for governor in the U.S., but she lost out to the Republican nominee after he was accused of orchestrating a political stunt that cancelled over a million voter registrations. She suggested last year that she would be president by 2040.

Stacey demonstrates that one woman can be instrumental in changing the world and fighting back against the political status quo. We need more politicians like her across the globe, so if you’re inspired by her story, you can try our ExpertTrack on Introduction to Politics, where you can learn more about creating democracy and equality in society.

2. Professor Sarah Gilbert 

Even if you haven’t heard of Professor Sarah Gilbert, you’re probably still grateful for her. She is the designer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19, which we eagerly waited for most of last year. Now, it’s being administered by the thousands, saving many lives. 

Professor Gilbert is a leading vaccinologist with 25 years of experience developing vaccines under her belt. Her work includes developing vaccines against infectious diseases, such as influenza, malaria and Ebola. She became a professor at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute (for vaccine research) and decided to create a universal flu vaccine that would be effective against all different types of flu. This work would be instrumental in the fast development of the COVID-19 vaccine last year.

Described as someone with “true grit”, Professor Gilbert demonstrates that perseverance and hard work can create really tangible results, and we loved seeing a woman centre stage during the pandemic. In 2019, the percentage of women working in STEM in the UK was still only 24%, and role models like Professor Gilbert prove that this percentage needs to rise. If you’re curious about the science of vaccines, you can read our blog How do vaccines work here.

3. Jacinda Ardern 

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is the youngest female political leader in the world. Only five per cent of the world’s political leaders are women, but Ardern definitely has the capability to change that. If her election is not inspiring enough by itself, she is loved for her decisive leadership, climate action, incredible handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her kindness. 

Creating an empathetic government is not often high on the political agenda, but Jacinda Ardern shows that you can be a very strong leader whilst also being incredibly kind and empathetic. She took a 20 per cent wage cut during the pandemic, understanding the financial difficulties of New Zealand’s people, and after the terrible terrorist incident in Christchurch, she immediately displayed humanity and decisiveness when she banned assault rifles and semi-automatic guns. 

Her ability to demonstrate solidarity with different communities and aid recovery in difficult situations have helped make her the most popular leader in New Zealand in 100 years

4. Munroe Bergdorf 

Munroe is an incredibly inspiring activist and model, who made her way into the public eye when she was hired as the first transgender model for a L’Oréal campaign in 2017. However, after she publicly condemned white supremacy amidst the Charlottesville protests, she was unfairly fired for being inconsistent with L’Oréal’s values. Munroe actively fought this decision online and criticised brands for their poor efforts in achieving diversity. 

When L’Oréal posted on social media this last summer about racial solidarity in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd’s murder, Munroe was the first to call them out. This led to an apology and Munroe joining L’Oréal’s U.K. Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, which demonstrates that standing up for what you believe in and having important conversations can create social change. Her work also highlights the importance of representation in advertising – women need to see role models who look like them in the media.

Bergdorf’s platform is continually growing, and we’re so inspired by the way she’s bringing attention to racism, transphobia and their undeniable intersections through Instagram, TV appearances, and articles for successful magazines such as Dazed. Her determination reminds us to be the change we want to see in the world.

5. Sharmadean Reid 

Sharmadean Reid is the Founder and CEO of Beautystack and The Stack World. She practically invented nail art here in the UK and became a young beauty entrepreneur long before it became a popular thing to do. She has an incredible vision for local beauty experts and was in the middle of creating a thriving marketplace for women to move beyond salons when COVID-19 hit. Since then, she has been at the forefront of government pressure to take the beauty industry seriously.

She is also a tech innovator, having launched an app for young female founders. She is an incredible mix of creative visionary, trailblazing and learning lover – her Instagram is filled with quotes, books and wise shares from her own journey as a founder of multiple businesses. Throughout the pandemic, she has been putting pressure on the UK government to support the beauty industry, and she also provided support to her audiences by providing mental health tips and business advice.

We’re all for the idea of creating female networks and sisterhoods, and Sharmadean is a perfect example of how to do this successfully and uplift the women around you. It’s also inspiring to see successful female entrepreneurs such as Sharmadean, as only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs are female today. If you want to help change that figure, why not enrol onto our Supercharge your Career ExpertTrack?

6. Judy Heumann

A lifelong advocate for the rights of disabled people, Judy Heumann was declared a “fire hazard” and banned from school in 1949 when she contracted polio. She was just five years old, but watching her parents fight for her rights helped show her the importance of advocating for the rights of disabled people in the face of discrimination.

Judy served as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State under Obama from 2010-2017, which is an incredible achievement. Before that, she was the first teacher to use a wheelchair in New York City’s schools in 1970, and she was at the forefront of campaigns that helped create civil rights protections for disabled people in America. 

She’s included in our inspirational women of 2020 list, not only for the work she’s done over her lifetime, but also because she’s one of the main stars of a documentary that came out last year called Crip Camp. The film follows disabled teens at camp in 1970’s America, where they bring about the disability civil rights movement. Judy is another example of how individuals have the capability to change lives for many women.

7. Angela Merkel

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was elected in 2005 and has helped to solidify Germany as one of the strongest countries in the world. She grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany as a chemist, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 made her reconsider her career and turn to politics and international relations

Merkel has gained a reputation for being a strong and fair leader, and she is the first woman and East German to be chancellor of the country. She has kept the country afloat during tumultuous times, even preventing the crumbling of the Euro and helping to keep the EU together. 

Her leadership is one of the most respected in the world, with a median of 75% of people across surveyed countries saying they have confidence in Merkel’s political decision making. This is significantly higher than confidence in leaders from other powerful countries such as the UK, France, America and China. 

This respect in a long-time female leader is not particularly common, and is a sign of Merkel’s incredible modern diplomacy skills. She steps down this year, and so we wanted to pay respect to her 15-year tenure as chancellor. 

8. Amanda Gorman 

Amanda Gorman became the first National Youth Poet Laureate in the U.S. in 2017, but she really burst onto the international stage at President Biden’s inauguration last year. At 22, she is the youngest poet to be part of an inauguration, and she captured the minds of most of the world when she recited her poem “The Hill We Climb”.

There are a number of reasons why Gorman is so inspirational. She spoke out about racial injustice on the world stage, created a beautiful and complex piece of art at such a young age, and she displays a great deal of ambition. But maybe you didn’t know that she used to have a speech impediment, and she persevered to become an extraordinary orator. Additionally, she founded a non-profit organisation called One Pen One Page, which is all about empowering youth through education.

In her poem, she reads the line “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president”, and she actually announced her intention to run for U.S. president in the year 2036. If you’ve been inspired by Amanda’s words and ambition, you might want to try our Storytelling for Social Change course by the University of Michigan, and try your hand at creating influential art.

9. Malala Yousafzai 

Another woman proving that age doesn’t define your capabilities, Malala Yousafzai is an advocate for women’s right to education across the globe. She was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, after speaking out about girls education when she was banned from going to school. For many people, this attack would have had negative consequences, but Malala managed to use it as an incentive to change the lives of many young girls like her.

She established a charity, the Malala Fund, aiming to provide all girls with an education, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She travels all over the world to meet different girls, learn about their circumstances and help them go to school. One of the greatest things about Malala is that she never let fear get in the way of her mission, which is a really important lesson.

Last year, Malala graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, one of the best political educations someone can receive worldwide. This is a testament to her passion for transforming education. She has also just signed a deal with Apple TV+ to produce a series of different programs for women and children, which we can’t wait to see.

10. Regina Quartey 

Named by the Financial Times as one of the UK’s top 100 BAME Leaders in tech, Regina Quartey is a technology strategy consultant for the UK government. She designs their technology policies and has delivered large scale digital programmes across the government.

In our Women in Tech article, we discussed how women only make up 19% of the UK’s workforce, and this percentage decreases to 3% for black women. This means that Regina is working in a very male-dominated sphere, and so her success is all the more inspiring and important.

Additionally, Regina is passionate about getting more African and Caribbean women into tech and has worked with a charity called TalentRISE to support this movement. She volunteers in schools, runs mentoring programs and workshops on STEM and confidence building, and tries to make sure young girls are paired with role models in tech so they can unleash their potential. Additionally to all of this, Regina founded a community of women called Mainstream which seeks to connect women wanting to share career tips and create a personal network.

11. Lorena Borjas

Lorena Borjas was a community figure and leader, often regarded as the mother of the transgender Latinx community in Queens, New York. Originally born in Mexico, she moved to the U.S. for hormone therapy so she could transition and feel comfortable in her skin. Borjas dedicated her life to supporting Latina trans women and sex workers, inspiring these women so they can live to their full potential.

Lorena was already a trailblazer, but she made her mark even more last year when she set up and promoted a mutual aid fund in her neighbourhood to help trans people who were being affected economically by the COVID-19 pandemic. This work, as well as much of the work Lorena carried out, did not offer much in the way of financial support, but her passion to help other people surpassed her own needs. This is even more evident by the fact that she risked her own safety by helping others, as she had old trafficking charges that could have got her deported.

She sadly passed away in March 2020 after catching COVID-19, but in June last year, she was honoured by being added to the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York. Her empathy and resilience is something we can all learn from.

12. Meghan Markle

Now a household name, Meghan Markle is an actress, humanitarian, and the first biracial member of the British Royal Family. She is well known for her role as Rachel Zane in the TV show, Suits, and she has volunteered since she was a child, volunteering in soup kitchens at Skid Row at age 15. She also campaigned against a sexist advertisement when she was only 12, showing that her desire to protect women started at a young age.

More recently, Meghan spoke at the United Nations for International Women’s Day, fought against menstrual health stigma in Time magazine and became a global ambassador for World Vision Canada, fighting to improve the lives of children globally.

All of this is inspiring in itself, but we also wanted to mention Meghan for her outstanding bravery in speaking out about mental health in her most recent interview. Her candidness is a reminder that honesty and destigmatisation surrounding mental health is so important, and has the power to save lives.

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