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Great Women Portrait Project Launches in Halifax


HALIFAX, N.S.  -  A 5-year project will launch on International Women's Day which lets female leaders collaborate on creating new set of diversity and inclusion tools for battling gender bias: a portrait collection capturing the 'female face' of innovation and accomplishment.


A Halifax-based business is launching a new project that lets women leaders use portrait art as a diversity and inclusion tool to battle gender bias in the workspace.

The Great Women Portrait Project enables female-led companies, like MDW Lawto add portraits of pioneering women to their workspace.

Business leaders soon will be able to access a new kind of diversity and inclusion tool to battle gender bias in the workspace: original portraits of female pioneers who paved powerful but little-known paths, in traditionally male-dominated domains like law, science and engineering..

The Great Women Portrait Project official launches on International Women's Day, March 8 in Halifax,

Project creator Jo Napier says every year for the next five years, more than a dozen female-led companies will be invited to commission pioneering women's portraits for in their workspaces - and she predicts that project patrons will discover that portrait art packs an unexpected, punch.




"MDW Law, which just built its new headquarters in Halifax's historic Hydrostone district, is excited to hang the portrait of law pioneer Frances Fish - first woman graduate of Dal Law School - in their new boardroom.

'Insert quote" from Tara

An easy-to-implement "design intervention" -  like hanging pioneering women's portraits in a boardroom or hallway packs a psychological punch that diversity training may fail to deliver, says project creator Jo Napier: "Portraits of great women in the workplace close a gap in awareness around what 'women's work' really means, and does that in an inviting way that engages and educates the viewer."

The artist and business owners says behavioural science that suggests the simple presence of a great woman's portrait can, potentially, do what diversity and inclusion (D&I) training sessions can't do: namely, change mindsets," says Great Women Project creator Jo Napier.

While there's no single study that shows that diversity training works, it's still the favorite instrument used by companies, who spend billions annually on D&I programs. But Napier says behavioural science suggests that simple "design interventions", like updating the art on your walls to reflect the female face of innovation, may be an easier, more effective way to create change.

There's evidence to suggest that traditional D&I training don't really change mindsets. So a Halifax-based business has started The Great Women Portrait Project, to enable female-led companies like MDW Law to add portraits of pioneering women to their workspace.

Why cam the simple presence of a 'great woman' portrait in an office space  potentially do what a workplace training workshop can't ?

 "Because 'seeing is believing," says Napier. An easy-to-implement "design intervention" like hanging pioneering women's portraits in a boardroom or hallway packs a psychological punch: "It closes a gap in awareness around what 'women's work' really means, and does that vital job in an appealing, inviting, creative way."

Women have paved powerful paths in traditionally male-dominated domains, but - because men have been the record keepers - women's accomplishments in these fields just aren't well known.

"That omission has bred a gap in our awareness around women's pioneering work," says Napier, and that "gap in our collective consciousness feeds the lack of diversity, inclusion and equality in those arenas of work and study."

The 'Frankie' Boardroom 

The four female partners at MDW Law decided to commission a large-scale portrait of Frances Fish, first woman to graduate from Dalhousie Law School, for a boardroom in their brand-new headquarters, freshly constructed in Halifax's North End historic Hydrostone district.

[Insert quote from MDW Law about why they think the portrait's presence will have value. Perhaps how they changed the boardroom name?]


Napier, who came up with the idea for the Great Women Portrait Project after participating in provincial government trade missions to Boston and Atlanta last year. "Diue to Covid, both missions were virtual and in a way, that was a good thing: it felt like there was no rush. You had time to really talk. I talked, in depth, with a diverse group of U.S. businesswomen - primarily leaders in the tech space - and a lot of them loved the idea of an art project that let female leaders reveal 'the female face' of innovation."

Napier says she wanted to project to include a youth-education piece, and one of the U.S. women she met - Terry Hogan, President and Chief Technology Officer of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), challenged her to make it user-friendly so that busy female executives, who commission patrons, know the youth-education piece will happen without them lifting a finger. So that what I did."

Legacy + Learning

The Great Women Portrait Project [...invites women leaders to discover the great women innovators and industry pioneers of the past - that they likely never learned anything about - and then have them identify a youth organization; then we create a virtual tool that the organization leaders can use to teach the next generation of girls, and boys, about these great women."]

A small grant from the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women enabled Napier  to hire Halifax arts writer Elissa Barnard, who helped create an online roster of historic women innovators and pioneers.

"Out of 90 pioneers in the roster, reflecting a whole host of disciplines, we honestly knew nothing about any of them - except for perhaps one or maybe two women. It's crazy when you think about it - that we don't know half our history."

 Portrait project: a 2-step process

The project involves two simple steps,:

First, female leaders, individually or collectively, commission a 'great woman' portrait, hang it in a professional space and identify a youth organization whose members will learn about this female pioneer - and the other great women whose portraits are commission by other project patrons.

While that portrait subtly advocates for diversity and inclusion by serving to educate colleagues  and clients and peers about the powerful paths a great woman has paved, Napier reaches out to the  youth organization chose by the portrait sponsor.

"Typically, I use iMovie to create a 2-minute 'virtual portrait' capturing fascinating biographical details about the female pioneer, her work, obstacles she face, and her impact on the world so youth organization leaders can integrate that into lesson plans and learning tools.]

Project roots planted in N.S.

Napier, who started painting after a career as a journalist and author, says her portrait arts always focused primarily on reveal the pioneering paths women have paved in traditionally male-dominated domains like STEM.

"I want my daughter - when she closes her eyes to imagine a great scientist or innovator - to see a female face and know a female story. Knowing her history will make her less hesitant to embrace traditionally male-dominated course work and professions.

"I wanted girls to know the powerful paths women have paved - and liked the idea of starting this portrait project in Halifax because we have so many great women right here, in Nova Scotia."

Napier plans, over the next 5 years, to invite approximately one dozen female leaders annually to participate in the portrait project.

She has already had success: the first patrons of the project are a group of female lawyers who just opened their new office space in North End Halifax, and commissioned a large-scale portrait of Frances Fish - the first woman to graduate from Dalhousie Law School - for their boardroom.

[ insert quote perhaps? from Tara or Christine Doucette?]

"Half our history - the female half - is something we were never really taught, simply because men were the record keepers of history," says Napier, "That's just the way it was. But t I think that omission is a real opportunity. A chance to educate - and to inspire the next generation."


Napier has been spreading the word about the project on the Homefront and at a recent event sponsored by RBC Wealth Management she had the opportunity to share project details with a group of female leaders. A second event is planned for Feb. 21, also in the RBC Dominion Securities boardroom, where a collection of Napier's paintings, The Nova Scotia Nine: Great Women of Nova Scotia, is on permanent display.


Add: Poppy - North Star for constellation...?

Add: 1-sheet elements


 Putting up portraits of great women in your the professional space speaks to a company's values, so it's worth thinking about what you want your walls to say, she adds]



Although there's no single study that shows that diversity training works, it is still the favorite instrument used by companies,' ''but  Harvard behavioural economist Iris Bohnet believes it's not working, because can't fix minds,» she added.

Rather than trying to get managers to build empathy for a minority group, Bohnet’s approach starts with the system and culture. «If we can fix the system, gender equity will happen,» she said.




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