The existing fault lines of our world have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its related health, political, economic, and social fallouts.
It brought everything we’ve come to expect — and accept — about our world, across almost every possible area, to a standstill. And in the process, it gave us an opportunity to reset and start again on all that was broken.
Women, all over the world, are leading on this change. They are leading, innovating, creating, protesting, transforming, and strategising. They are taking this crisis and using it to create an opportunity for establishing structures that support all people, rather than a privileged few.
The women on this list span different countries and are working in many different areas to create change and reset the globe.
After leading one of the most successful campaigns against the spread of COVID-19, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly proven to be a leader guided by compassion. Last month she announced an inoculation program rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and included in this enough doses to service neighbouring, less wealthy Pacific Islands.
This voting rights activist was responsible for turning her state of Georgia blue, leading to Biden’s presidential win back in November 2020. “We’re fighting to protect our democracy from domestic enemies,” she recently told CNN.
Since leaving politics, Australia’s former Australian Prime Minister has been at the forefront of pushing an equality agenda. Her latest book, ‘Women in Leadership, Real Lives Real Lessons’ shares critical advice for women thinking of pursuing a career in politics and in leadership.
In November 2020, Harris made history by becoming the first female, first black and first Asian- American US vice-president, alongside President, Joe Biden. Harris has been setting records her entire career and has wasted no time in announcing a range of policies to help America fight back after a gruelling year in which hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives to the virus.
As well as leading the two impeachment attempts against former President Donald Trump, US House speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month that Congress will establish an independent, September 11-style commission to look into the deadly insurrection that took place at the US Capitol.
At just 31, the Representative for New York has an almost cult-like following. She has been a vocal advocate for fairer employment laws, immigration and women’s safety and earlier this year spoke out about her own trauma of sexual assault to underline the severity of the US insurrection at the Capitol.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
As the first elected female head of state in Africa, Sirleaf served as the President of Liberia between 2006 to 2018. Last year she was appointed co-chair of an independent panel reviewing the WHO’s response to the pandemic and expressed concerns about the vaccine roll-out, championing a greater focus on the rollout across poorer countries.
Tsai Ing wen
As one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020, Tsai’s profile skyrocketed last year when she successfully safeguarded Taiwan against a major spread of COVID-19. Last month, her government signed agreements for millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses. “Our government and biomedical industry continue to make great strides in the fight against the pandemic,” she said on Twitter.
Tame was named this year’s Australian of the Year for her work advocating for survivors of child sexual abuse, and as part of the #LetHerSpeak campaign, which paved the way for law reform in her home state, Tasmania. In a recent address at the National Press Club, Tame said we need to listening to survivors of child sexual abuse, and improve education, particularly on topics like consent and grooming.
She’s only the fifth poet ever in history to perform a poem at the U.S Presidential inauguration, but Gorman, at just 22, is already making such a huge splash. She wants to make sure the world understands that poetry can change the course of a country. “Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movements for change,” she told Michelle Obama in Time Magazine. “If we look at the Black Lives Matter protests, you see banners that say, They buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds.”
This world number 1 tennis player has gone from strength to strength over the years, despite taking a 12 month break in 2020. As well as cementing herself as one of the greats, she’s also an invaluable role model to young girls.
At just 23-years old, Osaka is not only a world-class tennis player but is changing the sport with her character, resilience and philanthropy. In recent years she’s become a vocal advocate for a range of social causes including the Black Lives Matter movement.
As well as recently penning a world-wide best-selling memoir, ‘Becoming’, Obama is set to change the health and wellbeing of future generations by starring in her own children’s show, ‘Waffles and Mochi’ which aims to champion what healthy eating looks like around the world.
Dr. Nita Patel
As the senior director for Vaccine Development and Antibody Discovery at bio tech company Novavax, Dr Patel has been instrumental in the global push for COVID-19 vaccine development. The team she leads is made up entirely of women, and final trials of the Novavax vaccine are looking promising.
A Wiradjuri woman from central NSW, Smith was recently appointed CEO at Aurora Education Foundation, an organisation that creates a pipeline of Indigenous leaders through educational opportunities at some of the world’s top universities.
In the past year, country music icon Dolly Parton has donated 1 million to vaccination research, helping to fund the Moderna vaccine which she recently got herself. She also famously campaigned for inoculation against the virus, changing the lyrics of her global hit, ‘Joelene’ to ‘Vaccine’.
Co-founder of the bio tech company BioNTech, Özlem Türeci, from Germany, is a leader in the global health sector. In the height of the pandemic in 2020, her company developed the approved first RNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.
For 25-year-old, Indigenous musician Barkaa, music is the most powerful form of protest. Her songs ‘Our Lives Matter’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe’ are a direct response to the racial reckoning that happened in 2020.
A doctoral student at the Centre for the History of Science at University of Oxford, Larsson published an essay last year about the way anti-vaccination groups have been recycling arguments from over a century ago. She hopes to study the benefits of unique medical intervention when it comes to vaccine research, vaccines trials, vaccination regulations and public health policy.
The woman behind the Netflix smash-hit of 2021, Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes is successfully re-shaping Hollywood through her focus on diversity and inclusivity in her casting.
An author and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, Alice Wong has recently been speaking out for the prioritisation of COVID vaccines to those with physical and mental disabilities. “If I get the virus, I will not survive,” she recently told Democracy Now, with studies showing people with disabilities are three times more likely to die from COVID-19.
An American economist and former Bernie Sanders advisor, Kelton knows a thing or two about how best to heal the world post-pandemic. In her book “The Deficit Myth”, she advocates for the modern monetary theory (MMT) where she believes that “rather than taxing or borrowing to fund spending, governments spend money first and only then choose to tax or borrow.”
Over the past year, Eilish opened up about her struggles with mental illness, helping to de-stigmatise the experience for thousands of her followers. She also wrote a whole new record during the pandemic informed by this.
21-year old Canberra-based youth advocate Pool has spent her young life campaigning for the rights of those marginalised in society. Recently, she was awarded the Youth Influencer of the Year by the King Holiday Observance Beloved Community Awards. She is vocal about wanting more women in parliament, media and cultural spaces.
Dr Kathrin Jansen
The 63-year-old scientist has been leading the charge with developing a vaccine for COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. She’s the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, and has been heading a team of more than 700 researchers to create a successful vaccine in just a few months.
Last year, Esther Duflo and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Duflo made history as the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and only the second woman ever to win the prize.
It’s hard to believe that such a huge icon of our times is still only just 18-years old. She’s written books, led an entire generation of young people to rally against climate change, and had documentaries made about her.
The 16-year old Melbournian led a team of eight teenagers as they took the government to court over a fossil fuel project. She was also the architect behind a Greta Thunberg-inspired school strike for climate in September 2019, when about 100,000 marched in Melbourne.
17-year-old university student and climate activist Yajman, was one of the organisers for the national and Sydney core team for School Strike 4 Climate and the 2019 NSW schools coordinator for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
This Bunuba woman has spent decades advocating for Indigenous Australian languages, social justice, women’s issues, and has worked tirelessly to reduce Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. She was appointed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2017 and last year released a landmark report on First Nations women and girls which called for a National Action Plan to be established urgently, along with targets and benchmarks for women and girls.
The multi-talented Chinese-Australian artist uses painting, sculpture and installation to explore a range of personal and cultural influences, including the religious background to her family upbringing and traditional Chinese symbolism. She was recently part of a show in Sydney that provided insight into the lives of artists living with disability.
As the founder of the Animata Maternal Foundation, Aminata Conteh-Biger supports thousands of women and their babies at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre in Sierra Leone. The centre is saving lives in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to have a baby. “We need to fight for childbirth. That’s where life comes from,” she recently told Women’s Agenda.
As well as being a Women in STEM ambassador, writing books about space and science and leading the Department of Education’s first ever STEM conference earlier this year, this former astronomer presents her own show on ABC, called Stargazing Live, where she’s hoping to change the way the public engage with space and astronomy.
A leading voice of the #JuToo movement in Japan, Yumi Ishikawa is working to bring awareness to gender discrimination against women. She took on archaic policies in Japan requiring women to wear high heels at work. It started with a tweet, but has since gone much further. Sexism in Japan continues to make international headlines, especially following Japan’s former Olympic boss’ comments that women board directors “talk too much”.
A national of Nepal and the Head of UN Women China, boasts 20 years of professional experience in international development and humanitarian assistance. Last year she spoke out urging Chinese business leaders to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to COVID-19 responses. She has worked in disaster-risk reduction with UN Women, and how disaster disproportionately affects women, long before the pandemic hit.
Known for her role as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, this Costa Rican diplomat and climate activist has been shifting the world’s political landscape regarding the issue of global warming and carbon emissions. She recently told a magazine that only stubborn optimism will change the future for the better. “Optimism means envisioning our desired future and then actively pulling it closer,” she said.
This disability activist is the founder of The Valuable 500 initiative, aiming to put “disability on the business leadership agenda.” Since COVID, she’s been urging leaders to put ending the “disability inequality crisis” at the forefront of the recovery. Casey, who is legally blind, already has 300 companies across 30 countries signed up to her initiative which she says will support the more than one billion people living with a disability worldwide.
Raworth is an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Her model for human development, called the “doughnut-shaped economic model, offers a plan of action that puts social and planetary boundaries at the core of governance redesign.
This young women’s rights activist has recently been released from prison after spending three years in it for campaigning for women’s right to drive and to end Saudi’s male guardianship system. She was one of the main movers and shakers who campaigned for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.
We’ve been following this talented Darumbal and South Sea Islander’s career for years as she continues to advocate for Indigenous social justice and ending education inequality. As the co-founder of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, she is changing the way mainstream media in our country is talking about Aboriginal rights.
Makore, from Zimbabwe, is a women’s and girls activist, best known for her work towards ending child marriages, after escaping her own at 14. She now runs an NGO, Spark READ (Resilience, Empowerment, Activism, and Development) which rescues child marriage victims and sexually abused girls. She’s also been recognised for her work in reusable sanitary pads and adolescent education on menstrual hygiene management. Her voice continues to be amplified through her features in World Economic Forum, 4 young Africans changing the world’ and Global Citizen ‘5 Formidable Young Women Who Are Shaping Africa’s Future’.
The young director made history last week becoming only the second woman to be awarded Best Director at the Golden Globes. “Nomandland” is only the 38-year old’s second second feature film.
Last month, Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria became World Trade Organisation’s seventh Director-General, becoming the first woman and the first African to fill the role. Her top priority at the World Trade Organisation is helping the organisation to play a stronger role in bringing solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, warning against the threat of vaccine nationalism. “No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she said recently. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”
The world knows her as the new President of the Tokyo Olympics, but few of us know that she was also a Bronze-medal winner in the 1992 Winter Olympics. As she’s taking on this role after the controversy regarding the former President’s quitting, she’s hoping to focus on gender-equality. “People in the world are now paying attention to gender issues, diversity issues on the organizing committee,” she said recently. “The quick response is very important. And that was the premise of us taking action.”
As the current Prime Minister of Barbados, Mottley has shown strong leadership during the pandemic, and has called for urgent global action on climate change. Recently, she was awarded by the Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland QC for her extraordinary leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Roopa Dhatt
As the Executive Director of Women in Global Health, Dr Dhatt has played a huge role during the pandemic. She is a passionate advocate for gender equality in global health. She believes that global health security depends on the protecting and supporting women, and that adopting a gender-sensitive approach to health security data collection and analysis will improve our current systems.
In Kenya, bricks are a highly sought-after source material. That’s why Matee’s company, Gjenge Makers, is revolutionizing the way construction is being approached. The engineering and biochemistry expert has found a way of turning plastic waste into building blocks to make bricks that are stronger than concrete material. The recycled material bricks also cost less than conventional bricks, making it easier for more people to access.
A proud Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, Lidia Thorpe serves in the Australian Senate, and is a lifelong activist and fighter for human rights, social justice, and the environment. Since entering federal parliament last year, she has fought for a national treaty to elevate First Nations voices and has argued that First Nations justice and climate justice are intrinsically connected.
Dr Rachel Levine
Dr Rachel Levine recently became the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate, when President Joe Biden selected her as assistant health secretary. Dr Levine is also a pediatrician and the former Pennsylvanian physician general.
A teenager and climate activist from Brazil, Lorenzo is working with other young people internationally, including Greta Thunberg, to demand climate action from world leaders. She been a leading voice and organiser, particularly in the development of the petition Children vs Climate Crisis, which was delivered to the United Nations by 15 youths, demanding more for their future.