Tag : recognition

Invisible women of science – now appearing at the Royal Society

Scientists, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Royal Society as part of its Summer Science Exhibition, raises the profile of accomplished women scientists.

Women in science have an image problem. It is not so much deciding whether they should aspire to the hard image of being a scientist or the soft image of being feminine, it is the more serious problem of invisibility. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our august institutions, our imposing portrait galleries and grand museums.  There is a dearth of dignified portraits of women scientists produced by distinguished artists.

There are historical reasons for this. In the Royal Society’s buildings there are many portraits of great scientists, mainly donated, and many portraits of past presidents, usually commissioned. It is not surprising that there are few portraits of women since women have only been admitted as Fellows since 1945. The exhibition, simply called “Scientists”, gives an opportunity to show them off.  This exhibition, part of the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition and one of the many activities it is undertaking to promote and increase diversity both at the society and within the scientific community, includes loans of works and, for the first time, commissioned drawings.

Preparing for this exhibition made it strikingly clear that there is a void in representations of women in science. We particularly lack them in traditional forms where imaginative thought, sitting sessions and artistic patience is needed to accomplish something more than simply a likeness. But we also lack them in contemporary media, such as inspiring installations or computer art.

Perhaps the time has come to take some steps towards a change. Why should only dead scientists and ex-presidents be represented? Why only older people? It seemed the right moment to commission some drawings of young but already accomplished women scientists. Their presence on the walls of the Royal Society will certainly be an exclusive and hopefully refreshing innovation.

Garry Kennard is an artist who has long been making links between science and art. He undertook to produce the four pen-and-ink portraits, finding subjects in the Royal Society’s university research fellows and Rosalind Franklin prizewinners. We hope that the resulting studies are a foretaste of a future where fine art portraits of young scientists are seen more often.  We have no idea what a critical mass of portraits of present day scientists would do to our perception of this community, nor do we know what the effects of seeing more portraits of women scientists might be.

What does science say? Do portraits of women have a measurable influence on what people do? Researchers at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, pursued this question with an experiment. They asked 149 students to give a political speech in front of a mixed audience in an immersive virtual reality environment. The speakers were randomly assigned one of four rooms in which to give their speech: facing a plain wall, or a wall with the projected image of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or Angela Merkel. No further reference was made to the portraits.

Previous work suggested that men would speak longer than women in this sort of situation. This was found again in the blank wall condition. But there was a subtle portrait effect and this was found only for the young women. Women talked significantly longer in the presence of the portrait of a female leader.

Interestingly, the presence of a picture of a female leader gave women a distinct boost. The same pattern was found when outside observers had to judge how good the speeches were. In addition, the women speakers themselves evaluated their performance more positively.

As scientists we have to be scrupulous about not over-interpreting results. Even if replicated, the finding does not mean that the mere presence of pictures of women leaders is enough, or even necessary, to boost young women’s performance and self-evaluation. There are many other factors that play a role in women’s success as leaders.

The presence of portraits of senior women may merely be a “prime”, that is, one of many cues present in the environment that unconsciously bias our perception and behaviour in certain directions.  The effectiveness of such cues has been amply demonstrated and, conversely, there are cues that act as a “stereotype threat“. So, for example, telling girls that boys do better at mathematics, depresses performance on a subsequent maths test.

However, there is also a “stereotype lift”, and it may be delivered by portraits of eminent women. Such a lift, however subtle, is very welcome. I hope that at least some visitors to the exhibition will experience it.

Uta Frith is a fellow of the Royal Society and a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University College London

After many weeks of silence, the Pritzker Architecture Prize officially rebuffed the call of a 17,000-signature petition late last week by refusing to recognize Denise Scott Brown as co-recipient of the 1991 Pritzker Prize. The award was conferred solely on her famous architect husband, Robert Venturi, despite the fact that they were not just partners in life, but also in every aspect of their work.

Two decades later, the “forgetting” of women in architecture is alive and well—both among this year’s nearly all-male Pritzker Prize jury, but also within the ranks of the actual architectural establishment in the United States, known as The American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Starting today, more than 10,000 members of the AIA will gather in Denver, where the AIA board of directors went so far as to adjust the rules of its coveted Gold Medal earlier this week, to recognize teams like Scott Brown and Venturi (rather than only selecting individuals, as it has done to date). Such gestures, while commendable, overlook the AIA’s own tendency to exclude women, most overtly evidenced in this year’s all-male convention keynote roster and in other subtle ways.

Convention attendees will hear from Blake Mycoskie, the popular founder of TOMS Shoes; Gen. Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State; and Cameron Sinclair, charismatic co-founder (with Kate Stohr) of Architecture for Humanity. All three are men highly capable of inspiring others, but three men they remain. And lest you think this year was simply an anomaly, the 2010, 2011, and 2012 AIA Conventions all failed to count even a single woman among their keynote rosters.

What about community development leader Rosanne Haggerty, whose organization, Community Solutions, is championing a “100,000 Homes” campaign to end chronic homelessness nationwide? Or Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang, which is as well known for its Aqua Tower as its colorful community centers on Chicago’s south side? Or author, TED speaker, high school design/build instructor, and new documentary subject Emily Pilloton of Project H Design? Or Amanda Burden and Janette Sadik-Khan, who have bravely led the revitalization of New York City’s public spaces? A visionary client, an award-winning architect, an innovative educator, and prolific policymakers, these are among the most progressive design leaders of our time, reshaping our field and reimagining our world.

We can only hope that the AIA is on the brink of better recognizing women, with the third woman president in its 157-year history set to take the reins in 2014. That’s a lot of weight to put on one woman, however. Instead, the AIA and its overwhelmingly male members can start by taking a close look at who they hold up and celebrate.

The AIA can follow the lead of the Art Directors Club, a 90-year old organization, whose male executive director late last month kicked off a spirited campaign, passionately calling for a 50/50 ratio of women to men on award juries, boards of directors, and in event speaker lineups. These are simple measures at face value, but could positively disrupt the imbalance seen today across the creative industries, and architecture in particular.

Individual male architects, but also the three keynote speakers at the AIA Convention this year, can publicly decline to participate in forums where there is not at least minimal representation of women. It can also be done preemptively: A national Jewish community organization called Advancing Women Professionals has enlisted 60 influential male professionals—each pledging not to appear on public panels without women, with profound results.

To be sure, even high-profile thought leadership conferences like the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, and TED struggle to achieve gender parity among their speaker rosters. Speaker agencies, like the ones representing Mycoskie, Powell, and Sinclair, are estimated to be just twenty percent women. But none even approximate the complete void of women achieved by the AIA.

Forty-five years ago, around the time that Denise Scott Brown was entering practice, another AIA Convention keynote speaker famously said, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” These were the biting words of the late civil rights activist Whitney M. Young, Jr.

One has to wonder what real impact Young’s words have had over the past 45 years when you consider the composition and actions of the nearly all-male Pritzker Prize jury as well as the AIA leadership vacuum that has led to the selection of an all-male keynote roster for four years running.

“We are going to have to have people as committed to inclusiveness as we have in the past to exclusiveness,” Young went on to say in 1968. In a world still riddled with structural sexism, it’s going to take real work on the part of the AIA and the architecture profession at-large to shift from exclusion to inclusion—of women, people of color, diverse clients, and so many others missing from the profession today. And each of us has a role to play.