Gender hierarchies are deeply entrenched across the design industry, immediately apparent in agencies, universities, museums, and beyond. Last year we saw an opportunity to explore the problem in the micro and gather data to closely examine the issue. In January 2019, we released our first annual report investigating the gender breakdown of 30 major design conferences that took place between winter 2017 and winter 2018, in order to see how an editorial platform like ours might be able to spark momentum around this topic and encourage conferences to take a look at their own practices. Today, we’re releasing a second report that examines the gender representation at 33 design conferences that took place during 2019.
Design conferences are often positioned as utopian gatherings where the industry tries to imagine new possibilities and foster new thinking. That men continue to receive the majority of time on stage at conferences is concerning—when a conference gives a designer the opportunity to speak on stage, it’s a statement that their perspective is valuable 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.
We found that 69.7% of events had more men on their lineup than any other gender.
Like last year, we began our research by asking a simple question: To what extent do men currently outweigh other genders at industry events? This year, we gathered data on the gender breakdown of 33 visual communication and graphic design conferences that took place in 2019, choosing events with a graphic design focus that are established and recognized by the design community. Twenty of the conferences in our pool are the same as last year’s report, with the addition of thirteen new events. We found that on average, 42.1% womxn and 0.5% nonbinary folk spoke at these design conferences, and 69.7% of events had more men on their lineup than other genders.
For the report, our senior editor Madeleine Morley teamed up with Lea Sievertsen, Silva Baum, and Claudia Scheer of notamuse, a German platform that profiles womxn in contemporary graphic design. At the end of this report, we’ve spoken with conference organizers and designers in order to contextualize our data further.
This report does not set out to propose an ideal gender breakdown—for instance, claiming that there must be 50% womxn on a lineup. We consider that too binary, and it suggests that inviting more womxn is the only factor to consider when creating an inclusive conference. The design industry must be more inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as other underrepresented groups (including those underrepresented when it comes to age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and physical ability). While the data that we’ve collected is not intersectional in its sole focus on gender, we strive to be intersectional in our analysis. Ultimately, our goal is to act strategically in order to spark conversation around diversity and inclusion in design at large.
Our foremost research goal is to determine the gender breakdown percentages for speakers at each conference. To calculate these, we counted the people listed on conference speaker pages or schedules. We went by the gender pronouns provided in a speaker’s conference bio, and we cross checked these with the gender pronouns listed on their professional website or social media profiles. We use the term “womxn” in order to explicitly acknowledge women of color and include transgender women in our count, which is trans-inclusive. This has been done with the understanding that trans men, as well as many others, encounter oppression that affects their experience of and access to privilege, including career opportunities and public recognition.
We use the umbrella term “nonbinary folk” for those who have designated their preferred pronouns as “they/them.” This has been done with the understanding that gender is a spectrum, and that some people may identify as having two or more genders. As with any data set, this one is not perfect; every effort was made to obtain accurate data. (If you have spoken at one of these conferences and believe we may have made a mistake, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will work to correct the data).
For the purpose of our research, we only 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. Also, workshops are often sponsored, and speaking at a conference is perceived as the most prestigious role at an event.
Our selection of conferences presents a broad overview of the landscape, yet it’s certainly not exhaustive. Rather, it’s intended as a sample. Our initial ambition was to gather data across different underrepresented groups, in order to produce a fully intersectional survey. Yet most conferences do not gather data on their speakers’ identities and backgrounds, and we found the data pool too limited to draw conclusive results. An ideal investigation would send surveys to each individual speaker to gather this information.
We calculated time on stage to emphasize that it is not simply an inclusive lineup of speakers that is vital, but also the time allocated to each person.
In addition to charting the gender breakdown of each conference lineup, we calculated the time on stage of men, womxn, and nonbinary folk. This shows how much time speakers were actually allocated. If a two-person studio was on stage for one hour, we allocated 30 minutes to each speaker. We calculated time on stage to emphasize that it is not simply an inclusive lineup of speakers that is vital, but also the time allocated to each person.
When counting the gender of speakers at conferences with websites written in languages unknown to the research team, we connected with feminist designers fluent in that language—and living in the conference’s area—for help. Google Translate’s tool is not trustworthy, as it has been known to automatically translate sentences to include masculine pronouns. Additionally, because our research team is based in Germany and the U.S., we spoke with graphic designers involved in feminist activities beyond the U.S. and Europe in order to include a more global perspective on gender in the design industry.
Reading the Results
In 2019 on average, 42.1% womxn and 0.5% nonbinary folk spoke at design conferences; 69.7% of design conferences had more men on their lineup than any other gender.
Last year, we compared the number of womxn speakers in Europe with that of North America, and we found that North American conferences tended to include more womxn on their lineups. In 2018, womxn accounted for 54.6% of speakers at North American conferences, while in Europe that number was lower at 35.7%. This year, European numbers are comparatively higher and North America’s are slightly lower. We found in 2019, 41.3% of speakers at European conferences were womxn, and 0.9% were nonbinary. In North America, 48.8% of speakers were womxn, and 0.1% were nonbinary.
By comparing the results from 2018 and 2019, we were able to see which conferences improved and which remained consistent when it comes to their gender breakdown. For the past two years, OFFF Barcelona and Bitscon have had more than 75% men on their lineup. Us By Night, while having a higher percentage of womxn speakers in 2019 than 2018 still features around 64.8% men on its lineup. AGI Open increased its numbers of womxn by a small degree. Both are consistently not inclusive of historically marginalized genders.
In addition to charting the gender breakdown of each conference lineup, we also calculated the amount of time each gender was allocated on stage to speak. The time on stage metric is important—last year, we saw that men tend to speak on stage independently, while womxn are more likely to speak on stage in pairs or in groups that include men as well as other womxn.
Factoring time on stage into our assessment added important context to our findings. For example, at Design Indaba, the lineup included 43.4% womxn, but womxn only spoke on stage for 35.1% of the time. Design Indaba includes varying lengths for lectures: for instance 10-minute presentations for graduates, and 30-40 minute speaking slots occupied by bigger name designers. This example highlights the hierarchies at play within a speaker lineup and shows that while a speaker list might appear inclusive, the people given prime time speaking slots can remain gendered.
This works both ways: Charting time on stage also shows instances where womxn received more time on stage than the conference’s breakdown. Fontstand included 40% womxn on its lineup but had womxn speaking for 48% of the time. In Fontstand’s case, there were more men on its lineup because two speaker slots were given to studios made up of a partnership of two men. All of this shows that the complexities of gender representation on a lineup are nuanced—while a lineup can be unequal, the programming itself may be better balanced.
Inclusive—and Exclusive—Organization Practices
In addition to gathering numbers, we wanted to use this report as an opportunity to learn from organizers—to get their tips for creating truly intersectional spaces.
Since releasing last year’s data, we’ve heard an argument from conference organizers with low numbers of womxn represented that lineups can often be a result of a bad timing and luck. Several organizers wrote to assert that they tried to invite more womxn, in particular, but many declined the offer or dropped out after accepting. While our data set is limited to two years, what we can see is a consistent tendency towards imbalance. These tendencies take root through repetition, and it takes a lot of conscious, hard work and effort not to simply repeat how things tend to go.
Tendencies take root through repetition, and it takes a lot of conscious, hard work and effort not to simply repeat how things tend to go.
Over the past year, several organizers wrote to us to assert that they tried to invite more womxn, but many declined or dropped out. The conference organizer of Us By Night, Rizon Parein, released a lengthy statement on Facebook about his curatorial process. In the post, he defended his approach and said “…less women respond to invites than men,” and blamed the “lack of diversity in the industry itself” for the fact only 24.6% womxn appeared on his lineup in 2018. He also said that he would “not find peace without having a beautiful balanced line up” the following year.
(Full disclosure: The Us By Night team were in talks with senior editor Madeleine Morley to host a panel discussion about gender at design conferences at their 2019 event, but Us By Night declined her proposal due to concerns over how it would fit into the rest of their programming.)
In 2019, we found that Us By Night still had a significant lack of womxn speaking on stage, with only 35.7% on the lineup. “We sent out around 250 invites but unfortunately we don’t have the luxury to just get whoever we want,” Parein told us when we asked about the potential reasons for the conference’s low number of womxn speakers. “Some decline, some don’t reply, it’s a long process to get to 70 artists. It became clear that women tended to decline more than men… Why they decline more, I have no clue… After many conversations I think the main reason is insecurity, fear of being on stage, women being less alpha-driven.”
Putting aside our own skepticism of this stereotype, we reached out to other conference organizers to see if they had similar difficulty when it came to securing womxn speakers for their lineup.
“If an organizer notices a trend in women declining an invitation, they need to take a hard look at their offerings,” says Isaac Watson, a producer at Kickass Conferences and the organizer of Loupe, a small design conference in Amsterdam with 62.5% womxn on its lineup (which we don’t survey as it’s focused on product, not graphic design). “This includes the equity of their speaker compensation package, or lack thereof, the expectations they have of their speakers, or other elements related to their production (an enforced code of conduct, accessibility services, etc.) that might be negatively influencing their willingness to commit.”
If an organizer notices a trend in women declining an invitation, they need to take a hard look at their offerings.
Some of the biggest inequalities at design conferences are created when speakers are expected to participate for free exposure, and it’s often the case that the speaker fees are reserved for luring bigger name designers to the stage. Speaking for free isn’t a realistic option for many designers, especially for historically marginalized groups including womxn who are disadvantaged by the gender pay gap and people of color who are disadvantaged by the racial wealth gap. Paying speakers is key to achieving a more inclusive lineup. For conferences that can’t afford to pay speakers fees or cover travel and accommodations, one potential workaround is asking sponsors to fund scholarship tickets for underrepresented groups—speakers and attendees—that can’t attend an event without financial help.
“Because we make diversity a priority, we also spend a lot of time researching potential speakers,” says Hilary Ashworth, the organizer of DesignThinkers, which takes place in Toronto and Vancouver and included 48.8% womxn and 1.2% nonbinary folk across its events in 2019. “We exercise empathy when people do cancel. In 2019, at least one [womxn] speaker had canceled a previous year but we were happy to give her another opportunity.”
Ashworth emphasizes that persistence, patience, and clear communication with speakers is important for securing a more diverse lineup. “We check in regularly with speakers who may not have been available one year to see if they are free down the road,” she says. “It took seven years of invitations before we confirmed Ellen Lupton as a speaker for DesignThinkers, but since then she’s spoken for us several times.”
We check in regularly with speakers who may not have been available one year to see if they are free down the road.
For a conference like Google SPAN, it comes down to self-accountability. “We place photographs of all our speakers on the wall while we’re organizing an event,” say the organizers of the conference, which this year included 50% womxn in its lineup. “When we see all the headshots together, it’s clear when we need to be doing better, either because it’s too white or male. If it looks like we’re not being inclusive, then we work to rectify that by inviting more people from that underrepresented group.”
Belgium design festival Fig. Liège similarly keeps tabs of its gender balance as it organizes, and has two additional columns in its speaker spreadsheet to indicate whether a speaker is a man or a womxn. “This, of course, creates a complicated binary, so there is still a lot of work and thinking to be done,” says one of the organizers, graphic designer Loraine Furter, who has written about her experience nearly organizing an all-male panel in her post “How I almost organized an all-male panel… which transformed into a badass feminist program!”
Furter emphasizes the importance of embracing diversity of thought as a core ideology of an event, rather than trying to hit targets and falling into the trap of tokenism. “If you only include one token woman on a panel of four people, or one woman of color on a panel of four white women, then there is a chance that you won’t have that one speaker if they drop out last minute,” she notes. “That’s not going to happen if you have a more balanced lineup to begin with.”
Furter also acknowledges the challenge of speaking up about the topic. “Recently, a workshop host was organizing a type event, and he decided to use typefaces only designed by men. I noticed, but then hesitated in saying something, because I didn’t want to be rude in how I pointed the problem out,” she says. “But then everything moved forward so quickly and fell into place. I wish I hadn’t hesitated.” Many can relate: In certain social contexts, pointing out a problem is hard work in itself, which allows normalized patterns to repeat without objection.
“Gender alone is not enough,” agrees the Berlin-based graphic designer Imad Gebrayel, who has experience as both an event organizer and speaker. “You could have a conference of only women, but it’s 90% white women. Or it’s 90% women of color, but all from the same social class. Or it’s 90% women of color from different social classes, but none of them are paid for speaking. That’s why thinking in an intersectional way is vital. I’m counted as a man in this data, but I’m not a white, established German man. I’m a young, nonconforming Arab man on a visa.”
Gebrayel speaks of a recent experience at a German design conference, where he pointed out on stage that he was the only person of color invited to speak. Two colleagues also pointed out that the conference didn’t reimburse its speakers. After a hostile response, an attendee allegedly set up a fake social media account and trolled them in a way that felt threatening. Pointing out a problem can be not only hard work, but also something that generates harassment.
“It’s not only programming that’s important to consider, but also audience and the event’s structure,” says Gebrayel. “Even if you’ve done a really good job on the level of inclusion, you can set up a speaker to fail if you don’t communicate the talk’s contents properly, or if there are scheduling issues and possible inconsiderations that can cause triggering and upsetting responses.”
It’s not only programming that’s important to consider, but also audience and the event’s structure.
When considering gender diversity at an event, the language used on stage and in conference marketing copy is also vital for creating an atmosphere that includes people who don’t conform to binary genders. Lou Downe, director of design and service standards for the UK Government, has drawn attention to this in an article entitled “How to talk about gender at events.” Their tips include the dos and don’ts of being respectful of speakers and attendees of all genders. For instance, rather than saying “Welcome ladies and gentlemen!” and “We need a 50/50 split of men and women at this event!” Downe suggests saying “Welcome everyone!” and “We need fair representation from all genders at this event.” Similarly, they suggest not assuming people’s gender, and always asking what pronouns someone uses.
Beyond the Data
One shortcoming of data like ours is that it does not contextualize privilege beyond gender. Our data does not reflect the race, nationality, and class of its speakers, all of which are important factors to consider when curating a lineup. There are many intersecting areas of exclusion not present, which is why we wanted to speak with designers about their own experiences with inclusivity at design conferences—and the things that data can hide.
Designer Mira Malhotra and illustrator Shrujana Shridhar of Kadak Collective, a group of South Asian artists, women, and queer folk who work with graphic storytelling, describe the gender washing they’ve observed at design events, and the general suspicion they feel when they’re invited to a conference with a lineup that features mostly men.
“In India there is a whole culture of media companies looking inclusive because they hire plenty of women. However, women aren’t in leadership positions, or they’re installed as puppets, or they are there to be looked at,” the group says. They describe the events that took place after the #MeToo movement emerged in India, which sparked news in 2018 that the Design Fabric Festival’s founder had been sexually harassing multiple women for decades, primarily over text message. As a result, the Design Fabric Festival conference did not take place in 2019 (we featured the festival in our first report, and covered the event in 2018). “There were also multiple stories of verbal abuse and non-payment of dues to artists,” continues Malhotra and Shridhar. “Most of it was running unethically, and this had inevitably popularized an unsustainable model of growth. The company took down its site after many artists and designers (mostly women) demanded their work to be taken down.”
Women aren’t in leadership positions, or they’re installed as puppets, or they are there to be looked at.
Seemingly progressive events can, even unintentionally, serve to mask larger structural issues. The 2018 After School Club, held at the university HfG Offenbach in Germany, was developed with the positive intention of highlighting womxn role models for its students. The all-womxn lineup was celebrated by the design press, but it obscured the fact that the event was held at a university with a design faculty made up of almost exclusively men in leadership positions with long-term fixed contracts. Any conversation about diversity and inclusion must consider how an organization’s money is distributed—and who reaps the benefits of fixed income and a decision-making position.
“There are always people asking for gender equality at design conferences or biennales, but then the event merely tries to get numbers to 50/50, and the curator or the decision-maker remains a man,” says Narae Kim, a member of South Korea’s Feminist Designer Social Club (FDSC). “To ensure diversity, it is essential to keep the organizers and curators ‘diverse,’” adds FDSC co-founder In-ah Shin. “Otherwise privileged people from a marginal group are the only ones that get the chance.”
Shin adds that organizers must take care of the speakers that they invite, especially if they’re inviting someone explicitly for inclusion purposes. “The pressure of ‘representing’ a certain group can be too big for one person to bear, which I’ve learnt from personal experience. And I’ve seen how unconsciously a womxn speaker’s voices can be ignored.” She suggests organizers write a guide to presenting at their event for those who are new to the speaking process. “I also wish organizers would consider providing a professional interpreter,” she adds, a suggestion directed at English-language conferences. “If a Korean speaks good English, there’s a good chance that they’re from a privileged background. I wish that language barriers were not barriers for any designer.”
Kay Jun, a third member of the FDSC group adds, “When I see the lineup of several conferences in Western countries, I can see that graphic design in Korea is represented by a handful of [the same] experts, who do not represent the diverse voices of the contemporary scene here.… It reproduces the same story [of Korean graphic design] again and again. And we know what this kind of repetition ends up with: A myth that many don’t agree with.”
For organizers struggling to improve their lineups, and designers curious about how they can make a difference, here are a few suggestions for first steps that can help to curate 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 those with less lucrative businesses can afford to attend.
- Discover new talent and curate an original lineup. Exclusion is amplified by only inviting established designers; look instead for those who haven’t yet been invited to speak.
- 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.
- Offer speakers support in preparing their presentation, or distribute a guide to presenting at your conference for those who may not have as much public speaking experience.
- Consider hiring a language interpreter.
- If you’re a sponsor of an event, refuse to do so if there isn’t a diverse lineup of speakers.
- Refuse to attend, or speak, at an event with a homogenous lineup.
- If you are frequently asked to present at conferences and you are white and a man, pay it forward by suggesting a speaker from an underrepresented community.
- Ask sponsors to fund scholarship tickets for underrepresented groups—speakers and attendees—who can’t attend your event without financial help.
- Follow the tips for talking about gender at events as outlined on Lou Downe’s blog.
- Check out AIGA’s Diversity + Inclusion resources.
- Take a look at our resource list from last’s years report, which includes a list of directories of womxn and nonbinary designers from diverse backgrounds for organizers searching for diverse speakers.
A special thanks to Jihee Lee, Feminist Designer Social Club, and Kadak Collective for their thoughtful input, and a big thank you to Anja Neidhardt for many discussions as well as Lisa Baumgarten. We are also especially indebted to the conversations that took place at 2019’s depatriachise design’s *!Lab!* event, entitled ‘Pizzas of Inequality. Gender Disbalance as Edible Statistics’ and organized in collaboration with Corinne Gisel and Nina Paim of common-interest, which explored how to look at data, and how to categorize people and whether we should even do so. And thank you to graphic designer Christoph Knoth for sharing with his ongoing research with us.
All data visualizations by Silva Baum, co-founder of Space Practice and co-founder of notamuse. We updated the graphics on Friday, 17 Jan 2020, to fix a typo in two images (Us By Night featured 35.7%, not 35.2%, womxn).