Which London boroughs have the best gender balance in their blue plaques?

Ballerina Darcey Bussell unveils a blue plaque to Dame Margot Fonteyn in 2016. Image: Getty.

Wandering the streets London, especially the more artistic boroughs, you’ve probably seen the blue plaques on the walls of some buildings. These honour the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them. But mostly the men.

This week, English Heritage asked the public for help on improving the percentage dedicated to women. At present, this stands at a woeful 14 per cent, even after a two year push to improve it. I asked for a list of the women already commemorated – but the response was to suggest using their app to find specific women.

So I turned to Wikipedia. As that lists the plaques by borough, and I know Citymetric readers love a list with some stats in it, here is a summary of what I found there. If you want to improve the chances of your suggestion making it to a wall, this may help you target your efforts.

Good effort, needs work

First up, the boroughs that seem to be trying.

Kingston-upon-Thames – 40 per cent of plaques dedicated to women

There are only five plaques in total, though, so it’s an area worth punting a suggestion in on. The two women were Enid Blyton and Dame Nellie Melba, but sadly their residencies did not overlap, so there were no lashings of peach desserts.

Enfield – 37 per cent, Merton – 37 per cent

Only four plaques in total in Enfield, so the result here is down to Mary Lamb having to share her plaque with her brother Charles. This seems a little unfair, given he has his own solo plaque over in Islington.

Bromley – 33.3 per cent, Hackney – 28 per cent, Islington – 24 per cent

One of the plaques in Bromley is for two women who lived together, but as we were only counting plaques, that only counted as one. This is not the only time cohabiting ladies appear.

Barnet – 19 per cent, Ealing – 17 per cent, Tower Hamlets – 14 per cent

There are 21 plaques in total for Tower Hamlets, but only three are for women. The site where the first flying bomb landed does get its own plaque, which seems to be stretching the selection criteria quite a long way.

Richmond-upon-Thames – 14 per cent

This borough should look to its neighbour to up its game. More overall, but a lower percentage for women. Virginia Woolf gets half a plaque, sharing with her husband. In fairness, she does have her own plaque over in Camden.

Kensington & Chelsea – 14 per cent

With the early focus of the plaques being on artists, it’s not surprising that K&C has the second highest number with 176 in total. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst have to share, whist Sylvia gets to go alone. George Eliot makes her first appearance here – one of two women to appear twice in the list without having to share with someone.

City of Westminster – 12 per cent

And here’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eliot’s contemporary, who also gets two solo plaques. This time they are both in the same borough, so the poet makes up 5 per cent of the 38 women listed. With 309 plaques, the most of any part of London, this a borough that is dripping in blue.

Camden - 12 per cent

Here’s Virginia Woolf with a plaque of her own, out of the 169 in the borough. Six women get to share plaques with their husbands. It may be worth a punt, if you can find a building Dante Gabriel Rossetti hasn’t already been in.

Must Try Harder

After the bulge or the arts crowds, we’re back into the boroughs where the number of plaques is in the tens, if that. Any of the following would be a good place to suggest someone.

Haringey – 10 per cent, Lewisham – 9per cent

Haringey has just one woman. But it did pop one on Alexandra Palace for being where the BBC started television in the UK.

Lambeth – 8 per cent

Two of Lambeth’s are for organisations, and two are for women. One of the women was Violette Szabo, the Special Operations Executive agent commemorated in the film ‘Carve Her Name’ and whose bust features on the SOE memorial close to Lambeth Palace.

Southwark 6 per cent, Hammersmith & Fulham 5 per cent, Wandsworth 4 per cent

Wandsworth has 27 plaques, only one of which is for a woman. And it’s that George Eliot again.


Not Even Trying

The following boroughs have no women featured on their blue plaques at all. None. Nada. In some cases, they have very few plaques, so a good pitch here could send them to the top of the leader board.

Barking & Dagenham

Given the role the Dagenham machinists – and their sisters up in Liverpool – had in the push for the Equal Pay Act of 1974, it’s startling to see the lone plaque is to Bobby Moore. The plant the women worked in is being demolished so it may be too late to mark it in the way other places have marked a historic moment.

Greenwich

Despite the borough’s history as a locus of power and scientific thinking, not a single woman of note has been born, died or lived in Greenwich. Not one. The GPO film unit gets a plaque though.

Newham

Two plaques, but none for women. An obvious choice would be Joan Littlewood, who lived and worked in the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Due to the rule about waiting 20 years after someone’s death to nominate them, this will have to wait until 2022 to be considered. 

Havering

Contains one blue plaque. To an anti-tank weapon.

Bexley, Brent, Croydon, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Redbridge, Sutton, Waltham Forest.

I. Can’t. Even.

If you’d like to nominate a woman for a blue plaque, there are some criteria. Which things like bombs and Ally Pally did not meet, but whatever.

Just 6 per cent of the plaques dedicated to scientists are for women at present, so that could be an area to focus on. Click here to get started.

Moira Paul helps run @CarveHerName, a project to write women back into history one day at a time.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.