BioNTech founder receives European women leaders award

Özlem Türeci, Uğur Şahin and Angela Merkel at the German Order of Merit ceremony in Germany, 19 March 2021. Türeci won the 'Woman in Business' award at the annual Women of Europe Awards ceremony, highlighting her work in developing the first mRNA vaccine to fight COVID-19. [EPA-EFE/Bernd von Jutrczenka / POOL EPA-EFE/Andreas Gora / POOL]

Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, was among the four winners in the sixth edition of the Women of Europe Awards held on Wednesday (1 December) by the European Movement International and the European Women’s Lobby (EWL).

The award ceremony honours female leaders for their contributions to society and defence of European values during the pandemic.

Türeci and her husband, Uğur Şahin, led BioNTech’s Project Lightspeed, resulting in the development of the first mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. Türeci received the ‘Woman in Business’ award for her commitment to tackle the pandemic and protect millions of lives.

“This award perfectly reflects values which are close to my heart,” Türeci said in her acceptance speech. “To foster cooperation across borders, regardless of where people are or where they come from; to be brave and entrepreneurial; to dare to try something new.”

Women make up 54% of BioNTech’s workforce across 60 countries and nearly half of its management.

“We like to think that being a gender-balanced team has been critical to making the seemingly impossible, possible,” Türeci said.

Other award winners included outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel for ‘Woman in Power,’ Roma activist and Kinderhilfe für Siebenbürgen founder Jenny Rasche for ‘Woman in Action,’ and 18-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg for ‘Woman in Youth Activism.’

“The Women of Europe Awards highlight the tenacity and courage of women who are at the forefront of our societies,” said MEP Eva Maydell, president of European Movement International. “As we still see the long-term economic and social consequences for women from the pandemic, these awards are even more timely and relevant.”

‘Europe is a woman’

Maydell, a member of the 10-person jury, emphasised that “Europe is a woman, and I am very proud to be one.”

Jenny Rasche organised Kinderhilfe für Siebenbürgen, a grassroots group that supports the integration of the Roma community in Europe by helping children gain access to education, renovating homes and more. She underlined the importance of strong female leaders in her acceptance speech.

“Active and determined women can achieve more than any army ever could,” Rasche said. “I stand for women everywhere, and this award shows that women are seen and that our commitment to positive change is recognised.”

Réka Sáfrány, jury member and EWL president, spoke of the powerful role of women during the pandemic. Women make up 76% of healthcare workers in the EU, with similar ratios in education and retail jobs.

“The pandemic has been instrumental in showing and exacerbating inequalities,” Sáfrány told EURACTIV. “But in [solving] the pandemic, women have played a very important role.”

She emphasised the importance of highlighting “women’s achievements and contributions to our society,” especially as women’s rights have regressed due to COVID-19.

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“We know that women have a harder time getting into important roles and have to excel to stay in their roles,” she said. “For me, that is a great symbolic achievement because they have the potential of really inspiring future generations.”

Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, chief of the European Commission’s external communications, expressed her pride in working under Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s first female president.

“This is an example of showing the change by leading the change,” Ahrenkilde Hansen said.

To keep moving in the right direction, “we need to engage and mobilise at all levels: European, national, the private sector, universities, schools, parents and individuals,” Maydell said. “In doing so, we can focus on [challenging] stereotypes, promoting female role models, and crafting non-discriminatory policies.”

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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