In early 2018, a designer posted on Facebook that only around one-third of the speakers at Brno’s International Biennial of Graphic Design were women, sparking a lengthy discussion thread. The Brno Biennial is considered one of the most prestigious graphic design events in Europe, and the lack of gender inclusivity among its speakers riled the design community. Soon after, the speaker lineup was announced for Germany’s CXI Brand Talks, the largest corporate and brand identity conference on the continent, and zero women made the cut. If women didn’t have a place onstage at either the most conceptually-driven design event in Europe or the most corporate one, where did they?
When a conference organizer gives a designer the opportunity to speak on stage, it’s a statement that their perspective is of value to the design community. If the majority of those given the stage are men, the implicit suggestion is that the most valuable perspective is that of a man’s.
To what extent do men currently outweigh women at industry events? In order to investigate the gender breakdown of conference speakers, our associate editor Madeleine Morley teamed up with Lea Sievertsen, Silva Baum, and Claudia Scheer of notamuse, a German platform that profiles women in contemporary graphic design. Our goal has been to evaluate which conferences are worth supporting, and which must do better when it comes to gender inclusivity.
For the purpose of our research, we counted speaker lineups; we did not include workshop and lab leaders, jury members, or exhibitors, so that our search could be applied across various types of conferences (which often differ in activities). We selected a list of 30 visual communication and graphic design conferences in order to present a broad overview of the landscape. This is not an exhaustive list; rather, it’s intended as a sample. We chose our list based on the following criteria:
- Conferences that we’ve attended or covered on Eye on Design and that we believe our readership would attend.
- Large-scale conferences that are deemed important industry events.
- A list that presents a global overview, reflecting our goal of global coverage.
The conferences that we’ve looked at took place between winter 2017 and winter 2018. The largest conferences had over 210 speakers, and the smallest 10. As with any data set, this one is not perfect. To calculate our percentages, we counted the people listed on conference speaker pages or schedules. To determine each speaker’s gender, we went by the pronouns provided in the speaker bios, in the press releases, on professional websites, in online articles about the speaker in question, or we emailed conferences for more extensive data. Notably, our results have no gender non-conforming category, as the conference sites and speaker bios were absent of language identifying gender non-conforming speakers. (If you have spoken at one of these conferences and do identify as gender non-conforming, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will immediately correct the data.) Despite a small team and modest budget, every effort was made to obtain accurate data. The lack of gender non-conforming speakers demonstrates that our industry is also lacking in perspectives outside the gender binary.
We define as a woman anyone who identifies herself as a woman. Our count is trans-inclusive. This has been done with the understanding that many experience oppression that affects their experience of and access to privilege, including career opportunities and public recognition.
Gender inclusivity isn’t the only issue when it comes to lineups: The design industry must be more inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities too, as well as other underrepresented groups (including those underrepresented when it comes to age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and physical ability). As conferences as a whole do not survey their speakers in order to determine identity, we found the current data pool too limited to provide an exact breakdown of underrepresented groups at each conference. An ideal investigation would send surveys to each individual speaker to gather this information. (In 2019, we plan to dig more deeply into the gender breakdown of conferences, and to also ascertain the breakdown of underrepresented groups.)
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, it’s not enough for organizers to say that they tried their hardest. There is simply no excuse for inclusion apologetics. In 2019, we urge designers to turn down invitations to conferences that do not demonstrate inclusive politics. We urge you to put community before self-promotion, and to encourage your colleagues to do the same. Explain to organizers why you are rejecting their offer. Demand better.
Conference organizers have a unique platform with the power to literally set the stage for what truly inclusive conversations should look like. At the end of this article, we’ve included a list of tips and tools for organizers looking to diversify their speaker list.
Reading the Results
The PR rhetoric for many of the least inclusive conferences does not reflect their reality. OFFF Barcelona, for example, describes itself as “innovative and international,” yet with only one-quarter women speakers, its gender politics are far from innovative. Most of its lineup is European or American, so its claim of internationalism is limited as well. Its lineup also includes very few POC. Brno Biennial’s talk series promises “leading graphic design professionals”—so the fact that it chose to profile only 34.8% women suggests the industry’s “leaders” are predominantly men.
Our investigation found that, on average, U.S. conferences had a gender breakdown of 54.6% women, whereas in Europe the average was 35.7%.
Across all the speakers, when looking at how many spoke on stage alone rather than with partners or in groups, 36% were women and 64% were men. We found that men are more often given a stage independently, whereas women are more likely to speak on stage in pairs or in groups that include men as well as other women.
As well as charting the gender breakdown of each conference lineup, we calculated the time-on-stage of women and men. This shows how much time speakers were actually allocated. If a studio of two was on stage for one hour, for example, we allocated 30 minutes to each speaker. We calculated time-on-stage to emphasize that it is not simply an inclusive lineup that is vital, but also the time that’s allocated to each person.
Counting time-on-stage often altered our findings. For example, the Brno Biennial’s talks, which had 34.8% women on its lineup, had women on stage for only 22% of the time. This means that men had roughly 78% more time speaking than women. The Weltformat Festival Symposium, which had 50% women, dropped to 40% when accounting for time-on-stage for women; similarly, Graphic Design Festival Scotland’s TopForm dropped from 50% women to 41.7% time-on-stage for women. AGI Open also dropped from 37.5% women speakers to 30.1% time-on-stage. While a lineup may appear equal in regards to a speaker list, this does not necessarily equate with the time women are given to actually talk.
Us By Night, which already had a meager 24.6% women, dropped to just 18.6% time-on-stage for women. That means that at Us By Night, 40.8 hours were dominated by men and only 9.35 hours by women. Out of the women speaking, one-third of them were in creative duos with male partners—so in a conference of 63 talks, there were only nine instances of women onstage without a man. That’s only 14%. For a conference that aims to represent the very cutting-edge of design today, these numbers suggest the opposite.
The following list shows percentages of the time women had on stage at conferences. (This chart highlights only the conferences that had women on stage under 50% of the time):
While many conferences that have an even balance of men and women speaking may have few, and sometimes no, WOC on the lineup. Gender inclusivity isn’t the only area of concern when it comes to design conference lineups: like many industries, the design industry must be more inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities. Conferences overwhelmingly reflect the bias, when they could be combating it.
WOC are subject to both gender and racial discrimination, and therefore it is vital that conference organizers ensure their voices are heard. To create a truly intersectional lineup, organizers must address the additional struggles that WOC face. In an essay published in Creative Review in 2018, designer Anoushka Khandwala notes: “The only way diversity can stop being an afterthought and be integrated into our perception of design is if those at the top of the industry, who benefit from these power structures, start to represent this issue. The way we are trying to encourage change at the moment is too slow, and relies on each WOC who, despite the odds, achieves success, doing her bit in helping the next generation follow suit.”
If you’re a conference organizer or attendee with more data to share, please send the lineup’s gender breakdown to email@example.com. If the conference fits with our criteria, we’ll double-check the numbers and add them to our findings.
Over the coming months, we’ll be interviewing conference organizers behind successfully diverse and inclusive lineups in order to gather more information and resources that other organizers can draw from.
Whether or not your conference is a profit-making enterprise, if you do not consider inclusion, you’re complicit in the exclusionary status quo. Khandwala puts it perfectly: “Design needs to reflect culture, and if we don’t integrate diversity into our notion of what design is, not only will we fail to adequately cater to society’s needs, we may actually be guilty of perpetuating society’s ills.”
For organizers struggling to improve their lineups, here are a few first steps towards curating a more inclusive conference environment:
- Offer free child care so it’s easier for parents to speak at your event.
- Provide fair compensation to everyone who speaks, so that those with less lucrative businesses can afford to attend.
- Discover new talent, and curate an original lineup. Speaking personally, we’re extremely bored seeing the same people over and over again at your conferences. Stop excluding by only inviting established designers; look instead for those who haven’t been invited to speak yet.
- Invite a diverse group of guest curators to assemble your lineup. Reach out to communities beyond your immediate network by diversifying your team of organizers.
- Make your event as accessible as possible by following the tips listed on the Alphabettes blog. For example: Invest in accessible venues, pumping and family rooms, gender-neutral bathrooms, and dietary requirements-compliant food.
- Be transparent about the application process in your call for speakers. Potential speakers who can’t afford to travel without reimbursement will be turned off by your lack of transparency.
- Ask sponsors to fund scholarship tickets for underrepresented groups—speakers and attendees—that can’t attend your event without financial help.
- Check out AIGA’s Diversity + Inclusion resources.
The following resources can help organizers find diverse speakers and moderators for their conferences. Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet suggestions of other databases to us @AIGAEyeOnDesign and we’ll add them to this ever-growing resource:
- A Reparative List for The Male-Dominated Conference: This Google Doc lists women “who work in, through, around, and for design” as recommended by peers and admirers.” The list is global and organized by country.
- Speakerinnen: A largely European open database of female-identifying speakers, organized by topic type.
- Women Who Draw: An open directory of female-identifying illustrators from around the globe.
- Typequality: A directory of typefaces made by women. Scroll through the fonts to discover the names of the designers behind them.
- Women of Graphic Design: A Tumblr featuring the work of women in graphic design.
- Khatt Foundation: The Centre for Arabic Typography, a cultural foundation dedicated to advancing Arabic typography and design research in the Middle East, North Africa, and their diasporas. Browse its news and resources for contributors.
- Typefaces designed by Asian women: An open-source list of typefaces designed by women type designers from Asia.
- People of Craft: A showcase of creatives of color.
- Techies Project: A photo project sharing stories of those who tend to be underrepresented in tech, including (but not limited to): women, people of color, those over 50, LGBTQ+, working parents, disabled, etc.
- Eye on Design: We pride ourselves on regularly publishing profiles and interviews with those often underrepresented in the design press. Browse our Design + Diversity category and our Profiles to find young, diverse talent.
- notamuse: The website and book by this investigation’s research assistants provides an extensive overview of European women working in the field today.
- Hall of Femmes: Browse the extensive online archive of interviews to discover more women in the field.
- Purchase the 2010 special issue of Slanted, which focused specifically on women in type.
- YesEqual: Find more women speakers in the field through browsing YesEqual’s extensive online directory.
- Should I Leave or Should I Stay?: A blog featuring interviews with Korean women designers.
- Women Talk Design: A directory of women and gender non-binary design speakers.
- Posterwomen: An Instagram account that highlights the poster designs of female-identifying designers. The platform’s founder also keeps an opensource spreadsheet of women designers that includes location.
- affemation: A network of women in Australian graphic design.
We would like to thank graphic designer Christoph Knoth for providing us with his research into 2018’s Brno Biennial; the ensuing conversation on Facebook was a key motivator behind this investigation. We would also like to thank Alphabettes, a blog about women type designers that also conducts an annual investigation into the gender breakdown of typography conferences.