Design conferences tackle gender equality following protests and bad headlines
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Design conferences tackle gender equality following protests and bad headlines

Leading architecture and design conferences have promised to improve gender balance but admit they are struggling to secure enough female speakers, according to a survey conducted for our Move the Needle initiative.

Several conferences have already increased the number of women compared to the previous year, while five more have pledged to do so for their next events, suggesting that the tide is turning away from the male-dominated lineups of the past.

Amsterdam and Sao Paulo conference What Design Can Do told Dezeen it is "striving for an equal number of women and men" at its events while Dutch Design Week, World Architecture Festival, the American Institute of Architects, CES and MIPIM all told Dezeen they would improve gender balance.

Some are doing this in response to our initiative but in three cases, this is due to bad publicity over the past year.

The American Institute of Architects said its forthcoming event in New York will feature equal numbers of male and female keynotes, after protests last year over a lineup that originally featured just one woman.

Protests and negative publicity force change

Tech show CES and property fair MIPIM have both promised more diversity following criticism. CES faced flak for its all-male keynotes while MIPIM has faced accusations of inappropriate behaviour by delegates.

However of a dozen international events we spoke to, only two – Maison & Objet and Melbourne Design Week – featured more female speakers than men, with 56 and 54 per cent women respectively.

Others ranged from 50 per cent female speakers at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair to just 20 per cent in the case of World Architecture Festival.

In a statement to Dezeen, World Architecture Festival said it was committed to increase gender equality year on year.

"WAF is fully committed to supporting gender equality in architecture," said Tracy Collins, group event director at WAF organiser Emap Publishing, who pointed out that 26 per cent of UK architects are female.

"Of the seven speakers recruited to date in 2018, two are women (28 per cent), but the programme is not yet completed and we are aiming to increase gender equality year on year.

WAF programme director Paul Finch told Dezeen in December last year that the event struggled to attract enough female speakers.

Easier to get men on stage

"Our experience over the last ten years is that it is quite difficult to get prominent women architects as speakers in quantity, but it doesn't mean we don't try," Finch said.

"For various reasons we find that high-profile women architects are more likely to withdraw from the event quite late on, with two French examples this year, and it is difficult to get like-for-like replacements."

Illustrations are by Kiki Ljung

Richard van der Laken, founder of design conference What Design Can Do, made the same point.

"In general my feeling is that for us it is easier to get men on stage than women," said Van der Laken, who nonetheless secured 44 per cent female speakers last year.

"With WDCD we always have women and men in the programme. The problem is very often that when a woman cancels we do not always have a female back up. That is something to work on."

He added: "It looks like 45 per cent of speakers at our 2018 conference in Amsterdam will be women. This is the same number as the last edition. We are striving to an equal number of women and men."

Design world "still a masculine affair"

Dezeen faced a similar situation when co-organising the Good Design for a Bad World talks at Dutch Design Week last year. Despite aiming for gender parity, some late cancellations added to an eventual lineup that was two thirds male.

"The design world is still quite a masculine affair, unfortunately," said Lotta Signeul, international media relations manager at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair.

"Even though there are more women than men graduating from design and architecture schools, it's not an equal opportunity sector. Maybe there are too few women who are willing to start their own design businesses."

Despite this, Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair's speaker programme last month featured 48 per cent female speakers.

Forward Festival, which organises design conferences in Vienna, Munich and Zurich, achieved 45 per cent female speakers last year thanks to a proactive approach.

"We always try to ask more women than men," said Forward Festival founder and managing director Lukas Kauer. "Not because of gender compulsion, but because we are convinced of the skills and qualities of women in leading positions in the creative industries."

Difference in egos

Kauer said that the difference in male and female egos was partly to blame for women's comparative reluctance to take to the stage at conferences. "Compared to their male counterparts, women are first and foremost able to describe their topics and work on a neutral meta-level and can convey a credible outlook for their genres," he said.

"Of course, I don't want to generalise, but in general, women maintain a healthy ego, usually with a penchant for understatement. Many of their male colleagues tend to have excessive egos."

Kauer added: "It is also often underestimated how hard all these women work – most of them are always really super busy – and still drive their projects with such lightness. This is also the reason why female speakers are often more difficult to persuade to participate in the festival."

Martin Barry, founder of urbanism conference reSITE, added that women had fewer opportunities to take time off work to attend conferences. "We work hard to balance the presence on stage, but with far fewer women in the industry, far fewer are then at a high level to be able to afford to take off work and attend an event to then further their career."

To address this, reSITE offered heavily discounted tickets for women wanting to attend its Resonate conference on acoustics in architecture, held in Lisbon last month. 

"There is a gender imbalance that has been artificially created, so we think it's important we do what we can to stimulate actions that rectify it, or rebalance," said Barry.

However reSITE struggled to find female speakers for the Resonate conference. "In Lisbon, there were five women amongst 18 speakers. In acoustic engineering women are almost non-existent."

Proactive approach required

Ewan McEoin of Melbourne Design Week said a proactive approach was needed to overcome a century of male domination of design.

"It is vital that we proactively counteract the gender imbalance that all too commonly is the hallmark of the design industry, in particular the worlds of architecture and industrial design," said Ewan McEoin, who is senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria and curator of Melbourne Design Week.

"The opinions, ideas, voices, and of course buildings and objects of men have dominated the world of design and architecture for the last 100 years."

Below are speaker figures and statements for the 12 conferences we surveyed, listed in order of the percentage of female speakers, from highest to lowest.

In addition we approached Design Miami and Global Design Forum for figures and statements, but they did not respond in time for publication.

Does your organisation want to help us Move the Needle on gender equality in architecture and design? Do you have a positive story to tell? If so please use the comments section below or email us: movetheneedle@dezeen.com


Maison & Objet

Female speakers: 50 (56 per cent)
Male speakers: 39 (44 per cent)

Biannual Parisian homewares show Maison & Objet runs a series of design talks alongside the trade fair. Figures are from the January 2018 programme.

Statement: Maison & Objet did not wish to comment.

www.maison-objet.com/en/paris/program/events


Melbourne Design Week

Female speakers: 7 (54 per cent)
Male speakers: 6 (46 per cent)

Melbourne Design Week takes place in the Australian city each March. Figures are for the upcoming event and only include international keynote speakers.

Statement: "For our perspective as one of the newest curatorial departments of design at an international institution, it is vital that we proactively counteract the gender imbalance that all too commonly is the hallmark of the design industry, in particular the worlds of architecture and industrial design," said Ewan McEoin, senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria.

"We do this in many ways and I am personally 100 per cent committed to ensuring this is something that flows through everything we do as a department. All of our exhibitions, collecting of works, commissioning, and talks and programs we run must promote and empower women in the design industry – anything less would be unethical and retrograde.

"The opinions, ideas, voices, and of course buildings and objects of men have dominated the world of design and architecture for the last 100 years.

"For 2018 we have several women architects and designers as international keynotes. Even though their male partners are here we have asked the women to speak."

www.ngv.vic.gov.au/melbourne-design-week


AIA Conference on Architecture

Female keynote speakers: 7 (50 per cent)
Male keynote speakers: 7 (50 per cent)

Organised by the American Institute of Architects, this annual three-day event is America's premier architecture talk-fest. Figures are for the 2017 conference, held in Orlando last April. The lineup originally only featured one woman, which triggered protests. In response, organisers signed up more women, including keynote speaker Michelle Obama.

Statement: "Gender parity is a paramount consideration," said Matt Tinder, senior manager, media relations at the American Institute of Architects.

"The AIA believes a more diverse profession is better situated to serve all communities, which is why gender and racial diversity is extremely important to the AIA.

"AIA Conference on Architecture also features an educational talks programme. This has 46 per cent female speakers and 64 per cent male speakers," Tinder said.

"The education session speakers are the result of a blind call for proposals process. When proposals are submitted, a peer review committee selects the proposals based primarily on the content, as the speakers' identities are not visible. We do not ask speakers to identify their gender."

www.conferenceonarchitecture.com


Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair

Female speakers: 24 (48 per cent)
Male speakers: 26 (52 per cent)

Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair is Scandinavia's leading trade show. It is held each February and features an extensive talks programme. Figures are from the 2018 event.

Statement: "There isn't a formal policy but we see it as important to try to achieve a good balance between male and female speakers as well as diversity in terms of age and experience of speakers," said Lotta Signeul, the fair's international media relations manager.

"We also cover architecture in our lecture programme and it's quite challenging to find female architects that are principals or owners of architecture firms.  

"We tried to broaden our search and find as many interesting speakers as possible. That includes looking at different architects and designers, and not falling for the obvious names. We want to be relevant and present the best speakers and part of being relevant is to have a good gender balance.

"The design world is still quite a masculine affair, unfortunately. Even though there are more women than men graduating from design and architecture schools, it's not an equal opportunity sector. Maybe there are too few women who are willing to start their own design businesses.

"Many of the successful architects and designers of today are very good at building companies and being entrepreneurs. Perhaps the design and architecture schools should be better at preparing the students for the business side of design and encourage women to be more entrepreneurial."

www.stockholmfurniturelightfair.se/program


Forward Festival

Female speakers: 60 (46 per cent)
Male speakers: 70 (54 per cent)

Forward Festival holds three two-day design conferences each year, in Vienna, Munich and Zurich. Figures are for all three 2017 events combined.

Statement: "Every year the festival planning starts with the selection of the speakers," said founder and managing director Lukas Kauer.

"In 2017 we had 130 speakers and artists. 60 of them were women. Hopefully we can increase that number in 2018. We always try to ask more women than men. Not because of gender compulsion, but because we are convinced of the skills and qualities of women in leading positions in the creative industries.

"Compared to their male counterparts, women are first and foremost able to describe their topics and work on a neutral meta-level and can convey a credible outlook for their genres. Of course, I don‘t want to generalize, but in general, women maintain a healthy ego, usually with a penchant for understatement. Many of their male colleagues tend to have excessive egos.

"It is also often underestimated how hard all these women work (most of them are always really super busy) and still drive their projects with such lightness. This is also the reason why female speakers are often more difficult to persuade to participate in the festival.

"Most of all I am impressed by the female global networks. For them, the highest priority is always the community itself and mutual advancement within the community (regularly meet-ups, mentorship circles and so on)."

www.forward-festival.com


Design Indaba

Female speakers: 17 (44 per cent)
Male speakers: 26 (56 per cent)

Design Indaba is a design and arts conference held in Cape Town every February. Figures are for this year's event.

Statement: "You can't have grown up in the tumult of South Africa in the days of apartheid, without being conscientised about social justice," said founder Ravi Naidoo.

"So we have tried hard since inception in 1995 to be a platform that is representative in terms of race, gender and age, and also curate for issues around social impact and inequality."

www.designindaba.com/conference


What Design Can Do Amsterdam

Female speakers: 25 (42 per cent)
Male speakers: 35 (58 per cent)

What Design Can Do Sao Paulo

Female speakers: 11 (52 per cent)
Male speakers: 10 (48 per cent)

One of Europe's biggest design conferences, What Design Can Do takes place in Amsterdam each May. Its newer sister event is held in Sao Paulo every November. Figures are for the 2017 events. The combined figures for both events are:

Female speakers: 36 (44 per cent)
Male speakers: 45 (56 per cent)

Statement: "WDCD continuously strives to improve diversity and I think we have come a long way," said founder Richard van der Laken. "Of course there is always room for improvement. With WDCD we focus on achieving diversity in age, race, discipline and geography. Gender is part of that puzzle.

"It looks like 45 per cent of speakers at our 2018 conference in Amsterdam will be women. This is the same number as the last edition. We are striving to an equal number of women and men.

"In general my feeling is that for us it is easier to get men on stage than women. With WDCD we always have women and men in the programme. The problem is very often that when a woman cancels we do not always have a female back up. That is something to work on.

"To tackle this, we continuously work on improving our research, with the goal to create more diversity and constant new input."

www.whatdesigncando.com


reSITE

Female speakers: 17 (33 per cent)
Male speakers: 34 (67 per cent)

Held each June, reSITE is an architecture conference exploring how to improve life in cities. Figures are for the 2017 event, held in Prague, where three of the eight keynote speakers were women.

Statement: "Since its genesis in 2012, reSITE has always invited and attracted outstanding women, both on the stage and in the audience," said Martin Barry, reSITE founder.

"Our ambition is to continue our work while fostering the gender balance in the architecture and design professions to correct the ratio of female voices in urban design disciplines and municipal decision making."

www.resite.org


Dutch Design Week

Female speakers: 18 (32 per cent)
Male speakers: 38 (68 per cent)

Dutch Design Week is held in Eindhoven each October and features a variety of talks programmes. Figures are for 2017 and include Dezeen's Good Design for a Bad World talks, which featured six women and 13 men.

Statement: "We want to express our commitment that we will closely monitor gender balance," said Raffaela Vandermühlen, head of brand strategy and PR.

"As far as the Dutch Design Week programme is concerned, we have to refer to the way Dutch Design Week is organised, which is mainly bottom up. This means that the Dutch Design Week organisation does not determine the gender balance. However we can motivate participants and provide more lists of female speakers. We would like to express this intention.

"With regard to our partner programmes, DDW Talks, Antenna and Good Design for a Bad World, we also want to express this intention. Speaker line up is always finding a right balance between viewpoints, specialisations and disciplines, in which we will take gender balance in account."

www.ddw.nl


CES

Female speakers: 288 (25 per cent)
Male speakers: 843 (75 per cent)

The Consumer Electronics Show is the world's largest fair for the technology sector. Held in Las Vegas each January, it this year attracted negative headlines for featuring an all-male list of keynote speakers at its conference.

Statement: "Next year, we look forward to making gains on diversity and ensuring we do a better job promoting the many women and minorities who are speaking at our show while continuing to expand opportunities."

www.ces.tech


MIPIM

Female speakers: 71 (25 per cent)
Male speakers: 212 (75 per cent)

MIPIM, the world's leading property fair, takes place in Cannes each March. It has recently attracted attention due to allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour of delegates. A conference programme runs alongside the trade fair. Figures are from the 2018 event, taking place later this month.

Statement: "MIPIM is committed to increasing the number of women speakers within its official conference programme. This year, 25 per cent of our panelists are women, up from 19 per cent in 2017."

www.mipim.com


World Architecture Festival

Female speakers: 10 (20 per cent)
Male speakers: 39 (80 per cent)

Inside Festival

Female speakers: 5 (31 per cent)
Male speakers: 11 (69 per cent)

World Architecture Festival and Inside Festival are sister events and take place simultaneously at the same venue. Both festivals feature awards programmes and speaker programmes, among other elements. Speaker figures are for the 2017 events, which took place in Berlin last November. When speakers from both are combined the figures are:

Female speakers: 15 (23 per cent)
Male speakers: 50 (67 per cent)

Statement: "WAF is fully committed to supporting gender equality in architecture," said Tracy Collins, group event director at Emap Publishing, which organises World Architecture Festival. "The percentage of female architects in the UK is 26 per cent, according to the Architects Registration Board (August 2017).

"Of the seven speakers recruited to date in 2018 from, two are women (28 per cent), but the programme is not yet completed and we are aiming to increase gender equality year on year.

"In addition we will be repeating our reception for the Women in Architecture programme hosted by the Architectural Review, WAF's international media partner, at WAF 2018."

www.worldarchitecturefestival.com/speakers-2017#icon

www.insidefestival.com/insidespeakers#list