At Cofinitive we like to set ourselves a challenge from time-to-time: it’s not always work-related, sometimes it’s simply an opportunity to learn something new.
Most recently, we challenged ourselves to choose our top three out of 100 inspirational women who feature in an exhibition by renowned British photographer Anita Corbin. In 100 First Women Corbin aims to capture the pioneering spirit and achievements of women across all manner of disciplines including sport, media, military, business, arts, music, adventure and politics.
Many of the portraits were striking because they showed women in traditionally male-dominated professions. Like the portrait of Lieutenant Commander Catherine Ker, Britain’s first woman to qualify as a Mine Warfare and Clearance Diving Officer in the Royal Navy. Despite being physically smaller – 5ft 2″ – than her male colleagues, she still has to wear the same gear; gear that weighs twice her body. Hurrah for equality!
What we found startling was the fact that nearly all of the job roles and individual achievements were gender-neutral. There was just one exception; Kim Cotton who became the UK’s first surrogate mother. We also noticed that few of the women featured were from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, a sad reflection of the reality of the under-representation experienced by these groups of women.
Then there was the portrait of Edith Kent; that hit a nerve too. Edith became the first woman in Britain to earn the same wage as her male colleagues when she got a job as a welder at Davenport dockyard in Plymouth in 1943. Women are still fighting for equal pay, decades on. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum’s report published in 2017, it will take 100 years to close the global gender pay gap at the current rate of change.
Many of the featured women became ‘firsts’ relatively recently (eg, in the last ten years) which sparked an impromptu discussion in the team about why it has taken so long for women to enter traditionally male-dominated professions and sports.
Our passion for diversity and inclusion – something we’re proud of at Cofinitive – led to us having a lengthy debrief at the end of our ‘top three’ challenge. Deciding on just three each was tough. It was truly humbling, reading the achievements of some of these women. Like Flight Lieutenant Leanne Martin who, in 2015, became the first woman to be fully qualified as a bomb disposal member of her RAF squadron (which was formed in 1943). And Kelly Gallagher MBE, the first woman to win British Winter Paralympic gold. A visually-impaired ski racer from Northern Ireland, Kelly regularly reaches a staggering speed of 75mph with her sighted guide. Gulp.
There were so many inspiring stories but in the end we settled on these amazing ladies (four of us chose profiles, so twelve in all, in alphabetical order of surname).
Some 30 years ago, Kim Cotton became the UK’s first surrogate mother, pioneering the modern acceptance of a practice which, at the time, was hugely controversial. Her choice – to conceive and birth a child on behalf of a childless couple – met with an enormous wave of public reaction, ranging from admiration and empathy to revulsion, outrage and even abuse. However, the repercussions of what she did changed history forever. Today, it is estimated that one child a week is born through surrogacy, which continues to help women, born without a womb or unable to carry a pregnancy to term, finally experience the miracle of motherhood. COTS, the surrogate agency that Kim duly set up, has now given the priceless gift of a child to more than a thousand couples, transforming their lives unimaginably. Hats off to her!
Katy Cropper made television history in 1990 by winning One Man and His Dog, the sheepdog trials BBC television series that first aired in 1976. The farming community had until then insisted that ‘women can’t run dogs’ and although Cropper originally thought the invitation to participate was a joke, she decided to let her 30 years’ experience speak for itself. The programme name continues to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield
The first thing you notice about Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE FRCP (Hon) is her off-the-wall style. Photographed at her home in Oxford, wearing a mini-skirt and floral platform wedges in her sixties, she doesn’t immediately strike you as one of our foremost scientists. And that’s exactly what we love about her! Individual, uncompromising, Westwood-esque even, Baroness Greenfield has clearly never felt compelled to conform or be anything other than herself. She has held her own in the male-dominated bastion of science, focused on the neuroscience of consciousness, the impact of technology on the brain, and the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease… and become the first female Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. What a dame!
As a northerner spending many Whitsuns in Saddleworth supporting Oldham Music Centre’s brass band, Laura Hirst was one of Faye’s choices. A woman being in a brass band should not be incredulous (not having a women conductor another 100 First Women), but in this instance it was. Laura was the first female, full-time member to play in the 119 years of The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. What is more poignant is that, since 1881 the membership had only male members and many threatened to leave when Laura was appointed. It’s an illustration of how a positive placement can be so affected by open bias. In the words of another female enigma, Lady Gaga, “Music is one of the most powerful things the world has to offer. No matter what race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation or gender you are, it has the power to unite us”. In the nine years since Laura’s appointment, 20% of the band is now female.
As we touched on earlier, Edith Kent was the first woman to get equal pay for equal work in 1943 while working as a welder at Davenport dockyard in Plymouth. But what’s even more impressive is the fact that, due to her petite size (4ft 11″), Edith was able to weld inside torpedo tubes, crucial work that her male co-workers wouldn’t have been able to undertake. In our debrief, we reflected on how much impact WWII must have had that meant Edith was ‘allowed’ to try welding in the first place. Go Edith!
The commitment and discipline of professional sports people is nothing short of remarkable. Cast your mind back to the 2012 Olympics and you might recall the steely drive, determination and go-getter attitude of Welsh teenager Jade Jones competing for Britain in taekwondo (women’s 57kg category). She earned her place in the ‘100 First Women’ exhibition by being the first British woman to win a gold medal in taekwondo with her 2010 Youth Olympics win. But, in fact, she has achieved much, much more than this: becoming the first Brit ever, male or female, to win an Olympic gold in taekwondo in any division! And all at the tender age of 18. Much respect!
Brigadier Sharon Nesmith
One of the very recent ‘first’ women, Brigadier Nesmith joined the army in 1992, and in her 26-year career has successfully combined motherhood with being a commander at all levels, most recently being the first woman to command an operational Brigade (5,000 troops). She has also been instrumental in the work to open ‘close combat’ roles to women. We found her inspirational, and are sure that the work she has done within the army will continue to inspire women to follow her footsteps into the armed forces.
Angela Rippon CBE
A familiar face on television since the mid-seventies, Angela Rippon became the BBC’s first female presenter of the Nine O’Clock News. For two decades, the news had been fronted by male presenters. In a recent radio interview Rippon put this achievement into context by reflecting on the sexist comments and behaviour she regularly encountered in this male-dominated environment. She even admitted that a “highly respected” male colleague pretended to flash her when she was live on air reading the news to an audience of 10 million. She’s never named him. Such strength of character.
Since when was tailoring a male role? Seemingly for 200 years during the male monopoly on Savile Row. Ten years ago, in 2009, Kathryn Sargent broke that trend, becoming the first female head cutter in the history of the most well-known street for males’ custom suiting. Oh and she does female tailoring too!
Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal PC QC
In 2007, Baroness Scotland of Asthal became the first woman to serve as Attorney General for England and Wales, and as such was chief legal adviser to the crown and government. This position had been held by men since the first formal appointment recorded in 1315. As if that wasn’t achievement enough, in 2016 The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC became the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and the sixth holder of that office since its creation in 1965.
Baroness Shirley Williams
Included in the exhibition as the first woman to Chair the Oxford Labour Club (1950), Baroness Williams is also notable as being one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and also has links to Cambridge, having been a Parliamentary Candidate here in 1987. She is also one of two of the 100 First Women that a member of the Cofinitive team has met in person!
Professor Lesley Yellowlees CBE
Professor Yellowlees is the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry in its 175-year history. During her time as president (2012 – 2014) she championed diversity and inclusion across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). As part of her presidency, Professor Yellowlees launched 175 Faces of Chemistry, a celebration of the diverse chemical sciences community.
The Cofinitive team saw the touring Anita Corbin 100 First Women exhibition at Palace House Newmarket in June 2019. Check the website for more tour dates. With thanks to Anita for allowing us to use the photo’s in this article.
Photos copyright Anita Corbin. Top row, left to right: Kim Cotton, Katy Cropper, Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE FRCP (Hon), Laura Hirst, Edith Kent, Jade Jones. Bottom row, left to right: Brigadier Sharon Nesmith, Angela Rippon CBE, Kathryn Sargent, Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal PC QC, Baroness Shirley Williams, Professor Lesley Yellowlees CBE.