Trinity’s Women on Walls

Trinity professors look back on a 2016 portrait as part of the Women on Walls campaign after the third round of portraits were unveiled in DCU

For centuries, Trinity’s Long Room sculptures stood unchanged, telling a story of geniuses and scholars, all with something in common apart from their brains: their sex. Then in 2019, we saw a historic vote to select four great female minds to join this formidable line-up. In some ways, these are superficial changes, that have a faint bitter taste of “too-little, too-late”. But in others, it is quite symbolic to think of these historically outspoken or gifted women holding their ground, outnumbered by men. Representation does matter, and this goes far beyond busts in the Long Room. 

In a similar thread to our own renewal of the Long Room, the Women on Walls campaign was born out of a need for female representation. The campaign began in 2016 in an effort to have greater representation of women on the walls of the Royal Irish Academy. The RIA was founded in 1785 as a society for learning and scholarship. It boasts past members such as Seamus Heaney, Erwin Schrödinger, Edmund Davy, and Mary Somerville. But until 2016, portraits of members on its walls were almost completely male-dominated, save one picture of a non-member female novelist which was part of their wider art collection. And though the society has had many notable female members, this wasn’t reflected as one walked around their Dawson Street Academy House. 

So, with backing from Accenture and Business to Arts, the RIA commissioned five portraits of notable female academics to better reflect the diverse nature of Ireland’s great thinkers on their walls. : Dr Sheila Tinney, Dr Françoise Henry, Dr Phyllis Clinch, and Dr Eleanor Knott. The fifth is a group portrait of a selection of eight scientists who received European Research Council grants between 2012 and 2015. These women were chosen to represent the current generation of female scientists, across a broad range of disciplines. Four of these women are Trinity professors. 

Selected for the portrait from Trinity were Professor Tríona Lally of the Department of Mechanical, Manufacturing, and Biomedical Engineering, Professor Lydia Lynch of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology,  Professor Sarah McCormack of the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and Professor Aoife McLysaght of the Department of Genetics. Alongside the four other scientists, they were depicted in a striking group portrait by Irish figurative painter Blaise Smith. The picture shows the eight scientists in an impactful line-up, each with an object or icon illustrating their research interests. 

The portraits were unveiled in the RIA along with an RTÉ documentary detailing the process of the portraits and the lives of the women behind them. Since this first round of the Women on Walls project, Accenture and partners have installed two other sets of portraits: eight in RCSI in 2018, and five in DCU were unveiled on International Women’s day this year. The RCSI portraits show eight female leaders in healthcare, including Dr. Mary Hannon, the first women to train and qualify at RCSI. 

“Five years since they were first captured in paint for the project some of the featured Trinity professors involved weighed in on their experience of WOW in the RIA.”

The latest portraits, which will be hung in the Future-Tech building in DCU, are of mathematician and pioneering computer programmer Kathleen McNulty, biochemist Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, engineer Beatrice Alice Hicks, X-ray crystallographer Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. The project has expanded greatly since the original portraits were created five years ago. Dr. Michelle Cullen, Managing Director and Head of Inclusion and Diversity for Accenture Ireland remarked of the project: “The contribution of women in society is too often invisible. Who we see on the walls, tells us about what we as a society value, about who is welcome, about who fits in. We set out on the journey of Women on Walls with the ambition of making women leaders visible to inspire future generations.”

Five years since they were first captured in paint for the project, and on the heels of the latest round of portraits, some of the featured Trinity professors involved weighed in on their experience of WOW in the RIA. When first asked about their experience of being chosen for the project, they seemed in agreement that it was a great honour, but that they were greatly surprised at being chosen from the many Irish women in science. “If I’m honest, at first I was a bit embarrassed and somewhat reluctant to be involved as I didn’t think I had done anything that warranted having my portrait done but the more I found out about the initiative the more it made sense to do this. It became clear that the choice of the 8 women was quite random and that we just represented so many women working in engineering and science that go unseen and are in the minority,” said Prof. Tríona Lally. 

Prof. Aoife McLysaght echoed this sentiment of “why me?” when asked about her experience: “It also was a bit funny, because they picked the eight they picked and they could have easily picked other people. So, you always have to kind of wrestle with the ‘they picked me and they could have had somebody else who would have been more deserving, or equally deserving’ kind of thing. I’ve been told over the years to just accept these things with a smile and with gratitude, and they tumble as the way they tumble out. But there was a part of me that was slightly embarrassed to be singled out, well eightled out.” she joked. 

But after the initial shock at being selected, representing women in science in Ireland for the portrait was an exciting prospect: “It was one of the greatest honours of my life so far! I love the RIA and what it means, so to be on the wall there was a major achievement for me and my family.” commented Prof. Lydia Lynch.  

“The experience was a really positive one, where I got to know seven great scientists and engineers and a wonderfully talented artist, who shared with us the fascinating process of capturing the essence of someone in a portrait. I am humbled and delighted to have been a part of the WOW portrait which has resulted in a really unique piece of art and the highlight of the whole process was when I got to bring my children in to see it where they delighted in seeing their ‘mammy’ on the walls of the RIA!” said Lally. 

McLysaght also remarked on the rare experience of having her portrait painted: “It was an honour to be asked to do it. I never had my portrait painted before… It was really nice interacting with the artist as well, in terms of seeing a bit of the process, because he talked to us along the way a bit about how he was planning as to how he came up with the layout and things like that. And so that was an interesting thing as well, definitely different from the normal day.”

“You can’t just stereotype us like that, we don’t all wear lab coats by the way!”

For the group portrait, artist Blaise Smith initially did a group phone call with the eight scientists to get a clearer vision of the portrait. Smith initially had the idea of all the scientists dressed in lab coats, but this was quickly shot down by the group: “We were all quick to go ‘you can’t just stereotype us like that, we don’t all wear lab coats by the way!’ Aren’t we trying to ditch the stereotype?” McLysaght jokes. “And so he really listened to that, and he was like ‘well come as you are then’. If you look at the painting, you’ll see like Maria [McNamara] is in hiking boots and carrying a hammer, because she’s like, ‘this is how I go out into the field’. Catríona is extraordinarily glamorous because that’s the way she dresses every day. We said we would go in what we were comfortable in.”

And she is right, this is one of the first things that jumps out at you when you look at the portrait. It captures different personalities, different research fields and different working environments. All these scientists look very at home in themselves and comfortable in their own skin, and this was crucial for the message behind the portrait. 

“I think that it shows scientists are women too, and not just one type of woman and not one type of person becomes a scientist – scientists look different, we don’t all look like Albert Einstein, whether you have long or short hair, glasses or not, high heels or hiking books, scientists can be any race, gender, shape or size, so everyone can feel it is for them. It is not a career that is off-limits,” explains Lynch. 

The second thing to jump out is the sheer powerful female energy that radiates from the picture. Partially due to the terrific Avengers-like assembly the researchers are in, standing tall, facing the viewer. This isn’t accidental, in early shots for the project Smith had the participants walk towards a camera with purpose in a way that McLysaght describes as “very much like a superhero scene, where we’re all striding confidently towards the camera.” The addition of the icons representing their various fields also gives a strong image of them wielding their superpowers. 

Lynch says that since the project she has received many messages through social media from women that she went to school with “Telling me that their kids visited the RIA with their school, or else they brought their kids at the weekend to see the portrait, and they all said the same thing. They told their kids ‘I know her, we went to school together, you can be a scientist and you could be on a wall too’. To me this said two things – it normalizes scientists (as regular human beings) and as a regular career choice, and secondly scientists are women too – and when young girls in primary and secondary school see this at their age, then it’s hopefully normal to them when they are deciding on their career.” 

Lally points out that the choice of younger women, at earlier stages of their careers (at the time they had all been recently awarded ERC starter grants) is important: “I would like to think that the project has encouraged more young women to consider pursuing research careers in science and engineering and that they can be confident that there are opportunities for success and impact in these fields that can yield a very rewarding career. I think the choice of eight women in relatively early stages of their careers, most of whom are working mothers and at a career stage of aspiring for senior roles in academia themselves, is a significant factor in how relatable the portrait subject is to younger women. It is important that young women do not see success in academia as something that is in any way elitist or beyond their capabilities and that it does not require excessive personal sacrifices for success.”

When asked about the effect she thinks the project has had on women and girls hoping to pursue research, McLysaght, ever the scientist, says that it is impossible to quantify the effect of this project, amongst the many efforts being made in recent years to attract more women to STEM. “If you were doing this as a scientific experiment, you would do this and nothing else, and that would not be a good strategy!” But joking aside, she, like the other participants, does cite the importance of visibility. “I think all of these things do contribute. I think visibility is important. And I know myself that when I was younger and thinking about what would I do and everything, I had never met a scientist, male or female. I didn’t think it was a thing you could do… So I think it is important that people see examples just so that it’s in their mind that it’s one of the options that are there.”

Lynch agrees that “the more projects and portraits showing diversity in science, the better for the future prospective scientists. And WOW was the first and many have followed since.” In the same vein Lally says: “I do think that at both a conscious and subconscious level that being surrounded by images of predominantly successful older men in areas such as engineering, science and entrepreneurship may have a significant impact on how both young men and women see young women fitting into these roles and therefore influence young women considering these sectors as viable career options. I think there are multiple ways we can address this issue in art, culture and the media and the WOW portraits are a critical step in the right direction.” 

The participants agree that though the representation and visibility of women in research is important, there are a lot of other issues that need to be combated also.  “I think we still have some way to go before women are fully represented at the most senior levels in academia but making women more visible in these roles via initiatives like WOW is a great start,” says Lally. 

 “You only have people to put in your portraits if you support them when they aren’t famous, and when they’re just starting.”

McLysaght describes a comic from XKCD comics, which talks about the few token famous female scientists held up as this ultimate goal for women in research: “There’s this person kind of slaving away at the bench and talking to herself and she goes, ‘Oh, my supervisor tells me if I keep working hard, I could be the next Marie Curie, you know, Marie Curie’. Then the ghost of Marie Curie appears and says, ‘would you ever stop with the next Marie Curie thing?’ Like just having this one example to hold everybody else up against. And it was such an extraordinarily, excessively successful female! It’s like, you’ve got to get two Nobel prizes, and in different subjects!” 

 “So I think having high profile, high achieving women [represented] is great, but it’s not enough on its own, these things have to filter back through as well, and they have to filter everywhere. You only have people to put in your portraits if you support them when they aren’t famous, and when they’re just starting. And give them an equal shot at all these stages. So I think you can’t do a thing like this and think ‘Job done!’ We’ve done the thing, we don’t need to do anything else, because we’re good people who put nice portraits on the wall. So I think it’s good, but it’s not all of the story by a long way.” says McLysaght. 

So the message is clear. Representation on walls is great. Seeing women and having them clearly visible in formerly male-dominated spaces is important. Visibility is crucial in ensuring we eradicate any gender inequality in STEM, but it isn’t everything. The Women on Walls project is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the forgotten female scientists, those who didn’t receive the credit, opportunities or support they deserved in their lifetimes. But we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past, women need to be supported at every stage in their career in STEM, and given true equity in the field. This generation of Women on Walls, they are more concerned with having women in labs, women with PhDs, women high up in universities, and women with power.

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.