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Gender Representation In Design

I appreciate I am a man, man. A white, middle aged man. I have the power. Why would I want to rock the boat? I once studied a BSc at uni – I know that in closed systems, you either evolve or go extinct. The industry i work in has been dominated by white middle-aged men since the days encapsulated in the series Mad Men. Here is why we need to change it…

Gender hierarchies are deeply entrenched across the design industry, immediately apparent in agencies, universities, museums, and beyond. Last year Eye On Design saw an opportunity to explore the problem in the micro and gather data to closely examine the issue. In January 2019, Eye On Design released their 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 theirs might be able to spark momentum around this topic and encourage conferences (and the industry) to take a look at their own practices. Eye On Design have releasing a second report today. It 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.

Eye On Design found that 69.7% of events had more men on their lineup than any other gender.

Like last year, they began their research by asking a simple question: To what extent do men currently outweigh other genders at industry events? This year, they 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 recognised by the design community. Twenty of the conferences in their pool are the same as last year’s report, with the addition of thirteen new events. They 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, Eye On Design’s 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.

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, the researchers compared the number of womxn speakers in Europe with that of North America, and they 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. Eye On Design & the other researchers 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.

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 marginalised groups including womxn who are disadvantaged by the gender pay gap and people of colour 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.

“Gender alone is not enough. You could have a conference of only women, but it’s 90% white women. Or it’s 90% women of colour, but all from the same social class. Or it’s 90% women of colour 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.”

  • Imad Gebrayel

One shortcoming of data like this is that it does not contextualise privilege beyond gender. The researcher’s data did 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.

For organisers (nay, the general industry) 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 organisers.
  • 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 the resource list from last’s years report, which includes a list of directories of womxn and nonbinary designers from diverse backgrounds for organisers searching for diverse speakers.

I appreciate this could be seen as a good-for-nothing man meddling in business that does not concern him. But, design does concern me – so I will vocalise my opinion. I appreciate that Women Designers are quite capable of overthrowing the Design Patriarchy – but, am I allowed to subvert from the inside? Have I accessed a Boy’s Club? Either-way – Gender representation is key to the survival of Good Design; a closed eco-system has to open up or evolve to overcome stagnation.

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