14/09/2017 11:13 BST | Updated 14/09/2017 11:14 BST

The Tenner In Your Pocket, And Why We Need To See More Women Everywhere

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Is it possible to look at the image of a women without descending into a discussion on looks?


Bank of England, usage permitted

Today marks an auspicious day. A new ten-pound note is being issued. Not only is it a polymer note of the same style as the new five pound note, it features a woman (apart from the Queen on the other side of course). Jane Austen is the new financial star, and takes the place of Elizabeth Fry as the token woman on British banknotes. I am also aware that the current chief cashier is a woman - Victoria Cleland - but imagery is what gets noticed.

To be clear, I wish we weren't having a discussion about how many women should be in banknotes; it should just be a simple fact that talented men and women feature over time on new designs, and should reflect a fairer gender balance. We are hardly going to run out of sufficiently talented women at the rate of one a decade are we?

Yet, unbelievably, the notes have stirred up a controversy based on Jane Austen's looks. Apparently the image has been slightly airbrushed, looking at the original housed in the National Portrait Gallery, the ONLY contemporary image that we have of her. Consider that for a moment - there is only one single image a one of the great English writers. You would have no problem finding multiple images of various generals, male politicians and bishops at any stage, as they were often seen as more 'paintable' subjects worthy of memorialising. The result of that is that male historical characters may well have been recorded in several poses and several styles. So there is no need to airbrush to get the image one wants, beyond the usual 'airbrushing' that any portrait painter would automatically do at the time to please the subject and make them look more regal, conquering, or just plain powerful.

When I was growing up for example the Duke of Wellington was on the back of a five pound note. I don't recall a discussion of whether he had been airbrushed because of course there were plenty of paintings of him looking powerful and strong. And of course, because he was a man.

I suspect our next discussion will be whether her clothes are appropriate. We can't even look at a banknote without finding a reason to criticise how a woman looks. I have even heard an argument that insisting that there are more women represented in banknotes is just tokenism. This is a pernicious argument. Representation, or the ability to see yourself or someone like you printed, displayed or acknowledged in the outside world is a powerful reinforcement of one's own self-esteem, and the absence of such representation can be negative. The insurance sector has struggled to achieve equal representation in imagery, which is why we started Emerald Life as an equality insurer.

There are only four banknotes - £5, £10, £20 and £50. The new polymer £20 is due out in 2020, which will just leave the £50 to be replaced (no date has yet been set for that). Would it really be that difficult to have an understanding that there should be two women and two men at any one time?