Women’s Voices in Type, On- and Offstage

Written by Dyana Weissman on August 14, 2015

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

A few weeks ago, Lila Symons observed: “I just looked at the main conference schedule for @typecon and barely any women are speaking. Seriously, what’s up with that?!”

What followed was a discussion on sexism in the industry. In 140-character increments, the conversation covered lots of ground — and yet it only scratched the surface. After thirteen years in this industry, I’ve given considerable thought to how women are treated and perceived. I’ve always wanted to know what my peers really think about these issues. Is what I perceive as sexism perceived as such by other women? Are male colleagues unconsciously biased, causing women to clam up rather than express their thoughts? Are there differences between male and female typeface designers? And if so, is “different” bad?

Jumping into the deep end

The general sentiment seems to be this: the type industry is fairly inclusive of women, but there’s room for improvement.

I don’t like being touched by random people, and out of the blue, this guy hugged me. That was uncomfortable enough, but then I felt his erection. I was so shocked, I felt like a deer in headlights. I didn’t know how to react. Part of me wanted to pretend it never happened. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me. When something that awful happens, no one can comprehend how anyone could be so abhorrent, so they ask: “Are you sure?”

Anon.

Women have told me many stories about being objectified and stereotyped; about blatant hostility lobbed at them, sometimes by other women; about favoritism toward men. Although there is consensus that few members of the type industry are openly hostile toward women, it’s instructive to reread Sibylle Hagmann’s seminal article from 2005 [PDF] to see how much — and how little — has changed.

To get a general lay of the land, I talked to some of my colleagues in the type industry from around the world: typeface designers, educators, and conference organizers. About two-thirds of respondents were women I had never spoken to before in my life. It was important to communicate privately, so people could feel free to share what they really thought. I wanted to know where we agreed and where we differed.

Results

Invitations to participate were sent to over fifty women in the industry. There were even more women I didn’t contact, because I found myself with no free time to eat, but I would love to hear from any woman who has something to share. The respondents are further limited, unfortunately, to women who speak English. Forty-three accepted my invitation; thirty-four replied in time to be included in this article.

Women who reported experiencing sexism in the type industry.

Women who reported experiencing sexism in the type industry.

While the sample size of my survey is admittedly small, more Europeans than other groups reported no sexism at all. Martina Flor, who moved from Argentina to Germany, reported: “Here, in the educated-academic layer, sexist language is rarely present and I have always been surprised and glad of how many steps forward this society is in that sense.”

“I have to say that in Russia we have a lot of women type designers, much more than men, especially in younger generations,” Maria Doreuli wrote via email. I found her words heartening — equality seems achievable. If fifty percent is possible in one (rather large) country, why can’t it be possible globally? The unflappable confidence displayed by each woman who did not encounter sexism was impressive to this self-doubting author. I’m sincerely glad that most of these women don’t feel affected by it, but since so many other women have been and continue to be affected, we must keep the discussion alive.

For a while, I felt like the younger generation of women was immune to the idea of sexism, and they felt like they were operating in the world as equals. In some ways, that’s fantastic! They don’t feel they’re treated any differently than anyone else. But type design isn’t a meritocracy; it’s just not the case. People don’t always rise to the top simply because of their effort. There are other factors at work and gender or sex is one element. But, I’m happy I was wrong, and there is recognition we’ve got some work to do to when it comes to equality in our industry.

Nicole Dotin

One of my biases was about public speaking. I suspected that being on stage is just not appealing to women, for unimportant biological reasons. Nina Stössinger wondered if the focus on speaking was androcentric; aren’t things like “writing perhaps, or thinking, or mentoring others, or just sitting quietly on one’s butt and doing good work,” just as valuable? Indeed, they are. More respondents, however, reported that they enjoyed giving talks — very much. “This preparation always teaches me so much. I try to propose talks on matters that would also require me to step out of my comfort zone and search for material. Another thing I am very passionate about that relates to speaking is the people you meet after,” Liron Lavi Turkenich told me. “There is no difference between male and female speakers; men are equally nervous going up on stage,” said Liza Enebeis. “With all due respect to Debbie Millman, Paula Scher, Louise Fili and Ellen Lupton, they simply cannot be the only women speaking and headlining all these design conferences year after year.” Elizabeth Carey Smith writes.

How much women in the type industry enjoy public speaking.

How much women in the type industry enjoy public speaking.

One thing that respondents mentioned frequently was this: Why limit this exploration to women? Why not address diversity in general? “I want to switch the word ‘women’ to ‘different viewpoints’ in this conversation. I want to see and hear from people with varied backgrounds and experiences for the nuance, subtlety, and breadth that would inherently add,” Ksenya Samarskaya explained. Since my research involves women, I will focus on that in my contribution here. When writing about women’s issues, it’s almost impossible not to think about other groups at the same time. Issues specific to race merit their own in-depth article; I hope that someone with the appropriate knowledge and experience will pick up that mantle.

Okay. Hey, wait, wasn’t this originally about TypeCon?

SOTA crunched some numbers regarding the last three conferences.

This year, only 22% of submissions were from women; of those, 64% of them were accepted. The number of womens’ submissions has declined, for an average of 34%. As womens’ submissions have declined, their acceptance rate has gone up, and the average over the last three years is 50%.

Full disclosure: I am friends with previous board members and others directly involved with TypeCon, and I have witnessed firsthand their concern with diversity. Regardless, this debate has given everyone a kick in the butt, reminding us that perhaps more can be done.

Let’s look at ATypI as well:

“About 30% of proposals came from women, or groups that involved women. In the selected ones we have about the same percentage, illustrated for instance in the fact that we have three keynotes, the opening one being a woman. Amsterdam and Barcelona also had women as keynotes. For these three years we did choose women as keynotes on purpose,” reported Marina Chaccur, an ATypI board member. “Only the keynotes are invited; everyone else we encourage to submit a proposal,” she continued. She also notes that roughly 30% of AtypI attendees are women.

“In a global community such as the type community, how does the culturally specific behavior — that each individual brings to the community — affect group dynamics?” mused Lara Captan. An excellent question that I wish I could delve into, and certainly hope that she does.

There are more local and international conferences worth looking at: DiaTipo in Brazil has “a very low percentage of women speaking,” Marina told me. “We were having a hard time coming up with different names than the few usual ones.” Serebro Nabora in Moscow chooses from an international pool, but has a better ratio of speakers, at least in 2015: two to three. ISType in Istanbul appeared to be closer to one to two. Typographics in New York had ten female participants out of thirty-six.

The SOTA Board believes that more women speakers in the TypeCon program would increase the conference quality and more accurately represent the contribution women make to type and typography. We want more women speakers, and we believe the most objectively good way to achieve this is to receive more proposals from women — and to find ways to encourage women to submit them.

TypeCon has scheduled a diversity committee to meet during the conference on Sunday, August 16, at 10 AM; Erin McLaughlin will lead the discussion. In my questions to women, I collected several suggestions for improving conferences, which I have passed on to her.

If SOTA is willing to be self-reflective and open to constructive criticism, then it behooves the rest of us to do the same.

The only thing we have to shame is shame itself

Before I go any further, I want to talk about shame and how ineffective it is.

Most people can take feelings of guilt, be self-reflective, and turn that into something positive. But on the internet, where tone is easily lost and shame is intensified, shame doesn’t accomplish much. People don’t like feeling bad about themselves (surprise!!!!) so they get defensive and refuse to listen.

People without empathy or insight will never listen. Trying to change the minds of people who feed on negative attention is a waste of our valuable time. We need to focus on the minds we can change; there are a lot more of them. They are listening and observing, but they may not always be as vocal.

So let me be clear: I don’t want to shame anyone here. My intention is to try to make everyone a little more aware of their inner workings, and give some thought to ideas they may not have considered before. We’re all human beings; sometimes we make mistakes. The important thing is that we have a chance to do better next time.

Some tips on how to deal with prejudice

This does not mean we should not stand up for ourselves and others. Discipline and shame are not the same thing. Separate the behavior from the person. “I disagree with that, and here’s why,” as opposed to “you’re an asshat.”

Be aware of subtle forms of manipulation such as gaslighting: when someone tries to convince you that your perception of reality is wrong (when it’s not). There is also misdirection — trying to steer away from the true focus of the conversation — although I prefer the term “bafflegab.” It’s fun to say. When you call someone out for bafflegabbing, you yourself are bafflegabbing, and everyone can have a good laugh, and then you can go back to your point.

Most important: give people opportunities to learn and do better next time. Embody positive behavior. If someone says something you find offensive, or unconsciously favors a man over a woman, consider asking: “What makes you say that?” Ask without judgment. Perhaps they have a good reason that you didn’t anticipate, or they simply did not realize the implications of what they were saying. If that’s the case, let them know, kindly, and then go get some frozen yogurt. Even if someone seems defensive at first, a reasonable person will think about it later. The seed you planted will grow.

A non-confrontational approach can still be difficult. My intention is not to push anyone into doing something with which they are truly uncomfortable. You can always support others, though, by amplifying underrepresented voices, sharing and favoriting posts, and promoting work of people who aren’t in your immediate friend group.

This support through amplification is precisely why it’s so important to involve men in any dialogue about sexism. They are our allies. When no women are around, and someone makes a sexist comment, it’s helpful if a guy can interject: “Hey, sexist comments aren’t funny.” We need to let our male allies feel like they can, and should, speak up on a woman’s behalf. Just because they haven’t lived our experience doesn’t mean they can’t see when something is wrong, and do something about it. Men can model good behavior as much as we can.

Time for Intermission! Get a snack and come back for Part Two.


Women’s Voices in Type

9 Comments

  1. I just learned loads from this article, even though I was fortunate enough to be a contributor. How important it is for us all to find a tribe of support and similar sentiments – the typographic industry can provide a lot of it, but knowing that other women feel the same about similar situations helps me exhale just that little bit extra.

    …and ‘bafflegab’ might just be my new favourite word!

  2. Andalee M says:

    This is a great article. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. Thank you for sharing. I will share it on my twitter feed @andaleem

  3. […] This also spurred major interviews and research from Dyana Weissman, which you can read in her epic article/​series on Typographica. […]

  4. […] Women’s Voices in Type, On- and Offstage […]

  5. Marina Chaccur says:

    I will keep thanking you Dyana for the initiative, the great Skype talk and this wonderful result! Congratulations!!!!

    Also thank to all the women who have collaborated and opened their hearts and mouths to make this possible.

    About ATypI I do need to include that I did check some numbers myself, and was glad when Thomas Phinney wrote to the board list (to open a discussion about equality) and confirmed them. Later on he was the one checking the percentage of female attendees.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Dyana— this is such a wonderful piece of research and the interviews you’ve conducted are a fantastic snapshot of women’s experiences in the field of type design (and in their own words). Add to that the thoughtful comments about how to move forward and create a more inclusive and diverse community, and you’ve created something truly useful. Bravo for the entire series!

  7. Craig Eliason says:

    Who was the female keynote at ATypI Amsterdam? I only recall (and the online program only lists) Petr van Blokland as a keynote speaker. http://www.atypi.org/conferences/amsterdam-2013/amsterdam-programme?day=2013-10-11

  8. Marina Chaccur says:

    Hi Craig, it was Alice Rawsthorn, and it is in the programme under night events, because she was the opening keynote on Thursday evening.
    http://www.atypi.org/conferences/amsterdam-2013/night-events also stated here: http://www.atypi.org/conferences/amsterdam-2013

  9. Craig, maybe Marina was thinking of Alexandra Korolkova who was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot that year.

  10. Craig Eliason says:

    Aha, that would explain why I didn’t remember it–I was already on a plane back home by that time.

  11. Marina Chaccur says:

    Hahaha, no Florian, I organized ATypI Amsterdam, so I am really referring to the opening keynote, Alice Rawsthorn.

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