Frauke Muecksch, a Bulgari fellow at The Rockefeller University, in the lab.

Can luxury brands contribute to the greater common good? That was the question addressed today in a webinar focusing on Bulgari’s social responsibility efforts to promote women in science, particularly in the research of coronavirus treatments.

Bulgari’s chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin was joined in conversation by Katie Ewer, associate professor and senior immunologist at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute; Leslie Vosshall, HHMI Investigator and the Robin Chemers Neustein professor of neurogenetics and behavior at The Rockefeller University; Eleonora Rizzuto, chief ethics and compliance officer and corporate social responsibility director for the Bulgari Group and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s Italian brands; Frauke Muecksch, a Bulgari fellow at The Rockefeller University, and Rebecca Makinson, a Bulgari fellow at Oxford, in a panel moderated by Fairchild Fashion Media president Amanda Smith.

Together, they addressed topics including women’s representation in science and their contributions in pathology research, as well as the responsibility of large corporations to extend themselves beyond their immediate fields and contribute to social advancement.

According to Babin, leaping into action at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis was compulsory and is tied to Bulgari’s larger sustainability ethos. “It’s pretty unique in the world of luxury, which was hit by the crisis. But we have such a crisis threatening health and lives, perhaps watches or bags are not a first priority. We found ourselves [Bulgari] in a dire financial situation but decided to use our reserves for this [virus] fund because we are citizens of the planet,” said the executive.

In June, Bulgari announced its Virus Free Fund, offering an undisclosed but significant sum to COVID-19-related response. The company was among the first luxury brands to pivot its beauty manufacturing operations toward hand sanitizing production. It set up fellowship opportunities for women at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and the Rockefeller University and also purchased a high-tech microscope for Rome’s Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases.

Ewer was part of the Oxford University research team that developed the COVID-19 vaccine being distributed by AstraZeneca across the U.K. The vaccine was discovered with help from Bulgari’s funding, which went toward the purchase of crucial equipment required in the vaccine’s research phase.

Despite her accomplishments, including extensive research for Malaria and Ebola treatments, Ewer is still unsettled that, “We get asked a lot, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in science?’ There are lots of us, but we are less seen because we find it harder to get to senior positions — we have to work harder.”

Ewer added that, “[At Oxford] there are fewer boundaries to seniority, our criteria is about recruiting the best people for the job. There are well-known mechanisms to improving female representation and making sure [public science] panels not only have gender representation but also gender balance. It’s just the patriarchal nature of academia — it’s getting better but it’s still very slow. I’m disappointed in 2021 to be asked what it’s like to be a woman in science.”

Vosshall, who has been working among a team of experts to research immune health and reactions to COVID-19, said women’s roles in science have been diminished during the virus crisis. “It’s striking, there had been a lot of progress getting women into visible positions before COVID-19 and then that collapsed. There are many expert female virologists. We are tribal in nature and tend to invite our friends [for opportunities]. I think there needs to be a more conscious effort to have panels represent humanity and not just the guy down the hall,” she said.

Vosshall described last week’s U.S. jobs report that indicated more than 140,000 women lost their jobs in December 2020 as “shocking.” She outlined the challenging work conditions that female scientists must contend with in this age of telecommuting. “Women in science who have babies to take care of do not have laptop jobs, it’s not safe to take your infant or toddler to the [lab] bench. It’s set back women in science by at least a year,” she said.

Babin said that he hopes “Women are more daring in a society where there have been psychological boundaries and the idea of living in a man’s world can be true. We cannot deny that women’s roles are growing and we are proud to be part of that journey.”

Rizzuto added that “In order for sustainability to take hold in the private sector we must have more and more partnership between the public and private sector. We deal with wonderful luxury products for [mostly] women. We are in a moment when our society and the world has a big struggle and within two weeks we were ready to give a response and find the best people in science for that job, and for us that means women.”