The Power of Images

The low numbers of female role models to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers is often cited as a major problem in encouraging girls into science and then keeping them there. Comments on this blog have also remarked on this problem. The UKRC created the ‘Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards’ in a move to create powerful portraits of powerful women to help to redress the balance of images that the average (young and not so young) person may encounter. The blurb for the 2011 awards, when nominations were being sought, stated:

The UKRC’s Women of Outstanding Achievement Photographic Exhibition is a collection of creative and dramatic portraits that profile outstanding women within science, engineering and technology. This is the sixth year of celebrating an annual collection of photographic portraits which celebrates seven outstanding contemporary women from the science, engineering and technology sectors. These women are regarded as an inspiration to others to represent the successes and achievements of women in these sectors.

The photographs are displayed at various venues around the country in the first year, and are then handed over to some appropriate organization. I have never forgotten the Athena Forum event hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering a year ago where I spoke to the audience against a backdrop of photographs of previous winners staring down at me. The black and white photographs – all have been taken by Robert Taylor – are the size of any decent painting and this was a stunning and unusual display, which I found curiously moving. The photograph below shows the Athena Forum committee, flanked by these photographs, plus Jocelyn Bell Burnell (my predecessor as Athena Forum chair) and Julia Higgins (Chair of the Forum’s predecessor organisation, the Athena Project), second and third from left respectively and themselves both winners of these awards. Their own photographs now adorn respectively the Institute of Physics and, in Julia’s case uniquely, both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The photographs on display behind us are respectively (left to right) Wendy Hall, Joanna Kennedy, Baroness Platt (not herself a winner, but deeply influential as a founding patron of WISE; the photograph was inspired by the UKRC concept) and Julia King.

Athena Forum meeting at the Royal Academy of Engineering January 2010, with a backdrop of four of the photographs of Women of Outstanding Achievement

I am deeply honoured now to have joined the ranks of winners, the prizes having been announced at the 2011 awards ceremony last night which, coincidentally, was also held at the Royal Academy of Engineering in this very same room.  The photographs for this year’s winners can be found here.

There are a few further points that are worth making about these prizes. Firstly, that whatever people may feel about ‘women only’ prizes, a subject I have written about before, there can be no denying the visual impact of these photographs.  Perhaps one could complain that displays inside professional societies are not particularly likely to impinge on schoolchildren because the vast majority of them will never set foot in such a building.  However, many early career researchers will – for conferences and other events – so their impact will still be significant. In fact, currently the portraits in the Royal Society lurk in basement rooms rather than in more public areas, but these are still rooms that meetings are held in not infrequently; indeed I was in a meeting in one of these rooms just yesterday, overlooked by Uta Frith, Carol Robinson and Nancy Rothwell – past winners all. Paul Nurse, the new Royal Society President, has already gone on record about the need to get more women’s portraits prominently displayed so the location of these images is something that looks set to change soon. Nevertheless the Royal Academy of Engineering display is undeniably more prominent, situated as the portraits are in the main lecture room. However, the portraits have much more visibility than simply the original ‘hard copies’, as booklets of the images (plus brief bios of the awardees) are produced and widely distributed, and the UKRC website has all the previous images easily accessible.

Secondly, the idea of these very visible portraits inspired one of the women shown in the above photo, Julia King who is VC of Aston University, to create her own montage of photographs ‘Aston people’. Again these were designed to promote images of diversity but in the Aston case these images were of employees from all tiers of the university to celebrate different categories of workers in this very tangible form.

Finally, that the UKRC’s funding has been withdrawn from 2012, with only a fraction of their recent level of support surviving for the current financial year, must throw not only the future of these awards into question, but much of the UKRC’s  other work which is directed at issues associated with women in science. Over the recent past they have carried out and commissioned a wide range of activities, including producing some interesting resources and working hard with apprentices and returners. It is not clear who, if anyone, will be able to pick up the different strands of their activities but they themselves are determined to keep going.  In the meantime, the UKRC are to be saluted for the imagination that caused them to create this stunning visual library, and the effort that they have put into alll their work, winning allies such as Lord Willis, who spoke last night, along the way. Last but not least they have succeeded in getting these images onto the front page of the Guardian today to ‘spread the word’ even further about the whole issue around women in science.

This photographic display initiated by the UKRC has provided a wonderful visual parade of those women who have ‘made it’ to inspire those who may be going to make it in the future. I hope, in some shape or form, this feature will be maintained whatever the UKRC’s own future may be.  The photographs are individually sponsored (mine was sponsored by the IOP, for instance) so it may well be that a collective of organisations can facilitate future productions of these visual reminders that scientists are not simply of the male gender.


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4 Responses to The Power of Images

  1. Ruth Wilson says:

    Thank you Athene, and many, many congratulations on a richly deserved award. I was not involved in the judging in any way and sadly cannot comment on your scientific work, but to my mind your clear and cogent communication on this blog, and your intelligent, steadfast commitment to equality makes you most definitely a Woman of Outstanding Achievement.

    As Lord Willis and many of the speakers said last night at the awards event, we are still far from seeing gender equality in science, engineering and technology. An increasing body of work shows the benefits of diversity and gender equality to business and innovation, yet the status quo rebuilds quickly if work in this area stops.

    Our aim at the UKRC is therefore is to continue to celebrate the achievements of women in SET, and to work with the employers, organisations and individuals that champion this cause. Anyone wanting to know more about our work, or offer support can reach us through our website:

  2. ricardipus says:

    First, congratulations on the award. 🙂

    Second, I agree that this is a wonderful idea – there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as powerful at delivering an immediate message as a good photograph. Even in the days of immediate availability of written news, of streaming video (or near-real-time video uploads) and the like, a single, solid image can really deliver impact.

    I wonder if there might be some way to publish these portraits, with descriptive biographies, in a (real, honest-to-goodness, hard-copy) book? While selling books of photographs is a tricky exercise at the best of times, and trickier still in esoteric fields of interest such as science and engineering, perhaps this might be worthwhile for the UKRC to think about – especially given its uncertain funding future?

  3. Cara says:

    Just commenting to say “congratulations”, and to agree that it makes it harder for women to envision being leaders in science if we don’t actually see women getting ahead.

  4. Chaohui Tan says:

    Hi Athene,

    I just heard about your Lifetime award from Springboard and wanted to pop by with a congratulations.

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