Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Professor Sarah Atkinson: 'Women's seminal contributions in creative tech are often hidden'

GLOW: Illuminating Innovation, the new exhibition opening on 8 March at King's, celebrates groundbreaking – and often overlooked �� advancements in digital creativity by women in technology. Professor Sarah Atkinson, curator of the exhibition which is presented by King's Culture, speaks about the need to shed light on women artists trailblazing creative innovation.

In 2024, women are still a minority in the STEM sectors. Even though the percentage of female STEM graduates is increasing, women are less likely to integrate into the labour market and to occupy higher leadership roles. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, women account for only 29.2% of all workers in science, technology, engineering and maths. The percentage of women working in artificial intelligence has increased by only 4 per cent since 2016.

The issue of underrepresentation also persists in creative tech. Women artists have been at the forefront of the first Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) explorations, they have been leading the development of computer and 3D animation and have redefined the video art scene. Their contributions, however, are often overlooked and uncredited. Professor Sarah Atkinson in the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries here at King’s sheds light on the women trailblazing creative innovation through her project, GLoW3 – Global Leadership of Women in Web 3.0.

Professor Sarah Atkinson

As part of the five-year ReFiguring Innovation in Games initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Professor Sarah Atkinson was researching transmedia – a phenomenon when different forms of media converge – which in 2016 was extending into VR.

‘We aimed to investigate allied areas to the games industry, which is renowned for its lack of gender diversity. My role in that research was to investigate the characteristics of emergent media spaces and what made them more gender diverse and inclusive.

Together with Dr Vicki Callahan from the University of Southern California, Professor Sarah Atkinson interviewed 140 women, non-binary and trans individuals from over 17 countries to collect their living experiences of working in spaces of creative innovation. These interviews formed the basis of the book Mixed Realities: Gender & Emergent Media, which will be published in spring 2025 by Wayne State University Press.

Galvanised by the many stories of innovation, Professor Sarah Atkinson applied for the Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship to continue this work. This was the beginning of GLoW3 – the project which seeks to interrogate, understand and foreground women, non-binary and trans contributions to the conceptualisation, commercialisation and creative potential of Web 3.0 and screen-based media and art.

GLoW3 was proposing to look at Web 3.0, an emergent area of experimentation and innovation. When new technologies arrive, a diverse range of creatives enter these spaces. However, when they become commercialised, and when venture capitalists come in to invest, the funding tends to go towards a very narrow and undiverse demographic, thus pushing gender and ethnically diverse people out of those industries as they evolve.– Professor Sarah Atkinson, GLOW curator and AHRC fellow

The leadership of tech innovation is actually more diverse than one might think – or what history or mainstream narratives might have told us, says Professor Atkinson. There was a need to uncover stories of digital artists and creative innovators who have been marginalised and to make them accessible to diverse audiences. GLOW: Illuminating Innovation, the new exhibition taking place from 8 March to 20 April at King’s, is designed to do just that.

From left to right: Yarli Allison, Violeta Ayala, Lisa Jamhoury and Rebecca Smith.

The initiative has been supported by the National Gallery X, Electric South and the Gazelli Art House. Following an open call, four artists were selected to participate in the artists’ programme in the summer 2023: Yarli Allison, Violeta Ayala, Lisa Jamhoury and Rebecca Smith (Urban Projections). Throughout the programme, the artists have taken part in workshops and development activities in partnership with the Virtual & Immersive Production Studio at the University of Nottingham. They have received support from King’s Digital Lab and the Department of Engineering in bringing their artworks to life – where installations and experiences by the artists will be on display in multiple locations across King’s Strand campus in the heart of London.

GLoW3 helps combat the lack of visibility and recognition that marginalized groups face, while giving us an excellent platform to creatively contribute to more inclusive and nuanced digital and artistic worlds.– Lisa Jamhoury, movement artist and programmer
The foregrounding of female contributions to Web 3.0 technologies and the sector of immersive and digital arts is essential. Visible representation is crucial, and it's through the contributions of marginalised voices that we can truly seek to interrogate the use of creative technologies for change.– Rebecca Smith, visual artist (Urban Projections)

Shining the light on the names of new artists and helping them reach new audiences is one of the many goals Professor Sarah Atkinson wants the exhibition to achieve. ‘I want to encourage people to look beyond the mainstream and what is presented to them to uncover different stories and perspectives that are expressed through arts and digital creativity. GLOW is a call to action to diversify collections, exhibitions and representations,’ she says.

Peggy Weil. LIPSYNC (1980)
Peggy Weil. LIPSYNC (1980). Architecture Machine Group / MIT Media Lab

GLOW: Illuminating Innovation will also feature legacy works by the acclaimed artists whom Professor Sarah Atkinson interviewed for her new book. ‘It was very important for me to include these important works. All of them had an element of being the first to do something,’ she says. ‘The artists themselves don’t necessarily claim that, but these works certainly represent some of the earliest moments of when these experimentations were taking place: the 3D animation of the first computational female figure by Rebecca Allen, the first demonstrations of computer-generated real-time speech by Peggy Weil, virtual world creation by Tamiko Thiel and the introduction of mobile VR technology by Nonny de la Peña.’

Sarah Atkinson's ‘GLOW: Illuminating Innovation’ produces a long overdue corrective focusing on the many, many women who have played important roles in the artistic development of the medium – some hardware, some software, and all focused on the development of new possibilities in the user's experience of this evolving artistic medium.– Tamiko Thiel, artist

The exhibition also includes a ‘Spotlight on VR’ section which has been curated by Liz Rosenthal, Curator of Venice Immersive at Venice Biennale. It features some of the most recent Virtual Reality projects made by women and includes gender-diverse viewpoints and narratives from around the world.

Being a woman in creative tech is challenging. A clear set of very similar lived experiences came out of our interviews, which include inequities in opportunities and funding, as well as experiences of harassment and bullying. Women's seminal contributions in creative tech are often hidden. On the positive side, there's a very strong line of resilience, bravery and ingenuity of those creators to continue making work that challenges the status quo. Their amazing work needs to be seen.– Professor Sarah Atkinson, GLOW curator and AHRC fellow

Find out more about women trailblazing digital creativity and visit the exhibition GLOW: Illuminating Innovation at King’s from 8 March until 20 April. The full programme is available here.

In this story

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

Professor of Screen Media

Latest news