Sexism row over new British passport design

LONDON • A new British passport design provoked a sexism row when it was unveiled on Tuesday, drawing criticism for featuring seven men and just two women to represent the country's cultural heritage.

The complex design covering the passport pages is aimed to be harder to forge and depicts mathematician Ada Lovelace and writer and architect Elisabeth Scott.

But the two women are outnumbered by men, who include playwright William Shakespeare, mathematician Charles Babbage and artists John Constable, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor.

"Instead of being celebrated and remembered, great British women are being airbrushed out of history," said Ms Sam Smethers, chief executive of gender equality campaigners the Fawcett Society. The decision caused a storm of controversy on social media and opposition lawmakers called on netizens to urge the interior ministry to include more women, such as writers Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf.

Architect Elisabeth Scott is featured on a page with a watermark of William Shakespeare in the new British passport. -- PHOTO: HM PASSPORT OFFICE

"Half a millennium of national achievement is embodied by just two women," wrote journalist Nell Frizzell in an opinion column in British daily The Guardian.

"I would love to hand over a passport at Customs that made me proud to be British; that from its very pages wove together the best of our men and women, reflecting and celebrating what my female forebears had achieved."

However, the passport office defended the design. "It wasn't something where we said, 'Let's set out to have only two women'. We tried to get a range of locations and things around the country," said

Mr Mark Thomson, director general of the passport office.

"We've got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we've got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of Britain."

The design of the passport, which changes every five years, is due to be phased in from next month. It includes enhanced holograms and security fibres, with Mr Thomson calling it "the most secure passport we have ever produced".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Sexism row over new British passport design'. Print Edition | Subscribe