women and typography

lindsay noble's picture


im currently researching into the relationship between women and typography/type design, and im looking at the implications of gender in industry.

Im hoping to use a base of primary research, so Id like to see if any of you guys have experiences or opinions on the subject. Reading a thread on Carol Twombly, there seems to be rumors of discrimination (but nothing so factual.. infact ill look for her biography) Id like to see how things have changed since then. Im interested in whats going on currently - Im sure everyone would like to think equality is here, and im not trying to point some feminist finger. Im interested because I have found hardly any literature on the subject, and believe its not fully explored territory.

areas of interest:

-Is gender an issue that has affected you as a designer?
-Do you think you have had to work harder for the recognition you have achieved because you are a woman?
-Has your gender affected the course of your career in terms of your decisions and the options open to you?
-Do you think it would be beneficial for there to be more support for women within typography and type design?
-Have you found that women are hidden away in production, or cluster in behind-the-scenes jobs?
-Do in-built female traits make women unsuitable for dominant, leading positions?
-Does a combination of male and female typographers form a stronger force, balancing skills from each side?
-Is there a difference in the way each gender uses typography? Are skills in using type gender specific?
-Are female typographers (and designers) forced to masculinize themselves to 'fit in' to male organisations/earn male respect?
-Is gender no longer an issue, and we should be concentrating more on the individual instead of grouping them?

Im very interested in your responses, please refer me to an older thread if youve done this all before



lindsay noble's picture

Sorry to clear that up i meant a handful of actual physiological differnces. before the hormones kick in. I had a very interesting interview with a psychology professor today, when ive got time will post more


Jackie Frant's picture

Blue Streak
Jackie, my comment may have come across as rude but it wasn’t meant to. All I can say is that I’m genetically predisposed to being a *rick.

Blue Streak,

All I can say is you are quite young, and I doubt you spent any time in any typeshop in New York City. On the other hand - not only did I -- but I owned one. Typesetting was a man's world. Ask anyone who was there. When I was in typsetting - there were less than 10 women in the city involved in typesetting.

My shop was an Alphatype shop - so I will just speak from experience. Something I believe your wife could understand. I had purchased my updated Alphatype equipment -- ah finally, we could make obliques out of Novarese upper case. Guess what - it broke down. I used the prescribed paper they -- it was Agfa paper. Well, the new equipment drew half a letter than the other half of the letter into the photopaper -- and it never matched up. I was losing business left and right - or worse, paying MKP top dollar just to run out our repro for us. They told me I could return the machine and buy a bigger machine from them. I stood my ground and hired a lawyer to talk to them. After months, they took back the machine and gave me the larger, though used, machine so I could do the work inside our shop again.

It was Alphatype who told me that as a woman in business I was a *itch - however, they admitted that ANY ALPHATYPE SHOP in the same position with a man at the helm - would just be doing business.

Blue - I was there. You weren't. The End.

SaranP's picture

I completely agree with everything you are saying in relation to the problem with asking women have they been discriminated against? Some women may not even realize it themselves - not because they are silly but because it is ingrained in our society. Women ARE discriminated against this is a fact all you have to do is look at the difference in pay packets for similar jobs. To even think that the design industry is not doing this is ridiculous. Design is a male dominated industry, the same way art is - just look at the statistics of how many women have shows in the major art galleries - how many have representation etc and part of the problem is that Men at the top of their game ask friends to do work for them, so jobs aren't advertised, passed on mostly to other male friends. I had first hand experience of seeing this happen during my time as a designer. Another thing that drives me crazy is when the discussion happens about the token Woman. This is ridiculous we need a balance and how many token Men are there? Just my two cents, most of the history about design and women's involvement is not being taught at Uni, and certainly not being taught by women because most of the professors are men- it's a vicious cycle. It needs to change. However Lindsay I wonder that if you can't see it yourself will it be easy to recognize? and I mean this in the nicest possible way. Do you, yourself believe that Women are being treated equally? An interesting project http://everydaysexism.com/

quadibloc's picture

Stanley Morison is more often named as the person responsible for Times Roman than Victor Lardent. So the people who took Victor Lardent's drawings and adapted them to different point sizes, and added more characters, would be even less likely to get credit even if they had been men.

And a male type designer who was self-effacing and who was uncomplaining in taking creative direction from his superiors even when it went against his artistic sensibilities... would please his superiors no end, and they wouldn't bother to wonder if he had some input on these matters.

This is not an attempt to say that either the women in Monotype's drawing rooms or Carol Twombly did not suffer discrimination based on their sex; manifestly, they did. But what is being discussed above in their cases and others is clearly not due to sex discrimination in an isolated, pure form: instead, it's a compound of gender and class and economic issues.

Nick Shinn's picture

One great thing about type design is that today you can hang up your shingle and people will licence your fonts if they like them, irrespective of who you are.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I have read only half of the responses in this thread so I don't know to which extent this is even applicable to the current discussion, but I want to communicate a theory I have on the gender imbalance in type. I should first say that I'm basing this theory on experience and indirect research and not direct research on gender imbalance but there might be some truth to it. I personally think the practice of type design is a rather "authistic" profession. That is to say, it requires a tremendous passion for something very specific and you need to be very patient and don't mind repetitive work. First I should say that autism is a spectrum everyone is on; it's a misconception that some people "have it" and others don't. Secondly, it seems that 1.8% of men develop autism spectrum disorders while it's only 0.2% in case of women. It could be that the characteristics we base the validation process on are male, thus distorting the outcome. A comparable example of this is a myocardial infarction; you think a main characteristic is chest pain and your left arm numbing down, but the characteristics in women are very different and as such in many cases when a woman has a myocardial infarction it's not recognized as such and is ascribed to stress or a flu or something like that. I personally doubt the results are distorted in the case of research on autism, but one should still consider it. Many think the difference can be ascribed to physical differences between genders in the brain, which does seem to be the case. Generally women are more empathic and have a higher social intelligence. In practice this higher social intelligence doesn't necessarily lead to better communication though because the woman thinks more emotionally. The man conversely tends to think less emotional and more rational (which is not to say it's logical; rationality is subjective here) but also loses control over rationality sooner and becomes aggressive. Now, these are obviously generalizations as there are obviously plenty of psychopathic women and empathic, highly sensitive men. However, I think when talking about equality we simply tend to ignore physical differences. I think people are just more likely to be interested in specific things depending on their gender and the rules society ascribes to that gender.

So far many professions have been male-dominated because that was the structure of our society, in which men go to work and women stay at home to look after the children. We're now slowly progressing towards a society where there is true equality and professions like type design are being practised more by women, but I think the closer we get to that kind of society, the more valuable the physical differences in the brain becomes. Because, right now we would probably ascribe the gender imbalance to cultural constructs. In an ideal society where man and woman are equal and have equal rights, the only difference left is the physical one (partially influenced by hormones). When we live in such a society we have much more insight into the statistics and we can then say to which extent gender has any impact on what you're going to like and dislike and what profession you will practice. I think this is why there are getting more women into type design.

I read in this thread that the females in design are often art directors and CEOs. Could this be to physical differences between genders as well? I come back to the male being more autistic and the woman being more empathic. It doesn't seem that strange that women would then be art directors and CEOs because of their social intelligence, while the man is more likely to be a designer or programmer because he can handle repetitive tasks better. I'm currently studying the art academy and it's dominated by women. I think this is because there is a lot of creativity involved. Before this I studied multi-media design at a graphics school, which was a lot more technical and less about concepts. That education was dominated by men. My typography teacher is a woman and she draws letters, while I design them. She's more involved with creativity while I'm more involved with consistency. She has a varied job while my job is rather repetitive. I know these are anecdotes and not evidence, but from experience everything I just said falls into place. If my theory is incorrect then these differences should be ascribed to our social/cultural construct, but one shouldn't forget that this cultural construct is largely based on differences in gender. Not necessarily correct ones, as we're progressing towards a society with actual gender equality (which works both ways; it's not at all just to improve the life of women as men are constricted in other ways), but I think the differences between genders are a big factor as well and shouldn't be ignored. We shouldn't think that men and women are actually the same.

Lindsay Noble: I read a recent article on house work, and the statistics still show that most chores around the house are done by women, even if both partners are in full time employment. This wasnt because cleaning and cooking were deemed as 'womens work' but more that women re-affirmed their femininity and therefore their own identity with such activity.

To feel 'whole' lets say, people re-affirm their identity (including gender identity), and perceptions of what a woman is and should be largely come from the society we are brought up in.

This is actually very important and it's one of the reasons why changes in our construct of society happen so slowly. The philosophy and science might have progressed, but it takes a while before we become comfortable with that progress. For example, it probably took a while before it was deemed acceptable for women to wear pants. It will take a lot longer for men to wear dresses, if ever. There is no gender equality yet, but people tend to become more and more free in what they can do and are comfortable in doing.

Thomas Phinney's picture

I will agree with Martin insofar as type design does attract people with a certain degree of, well fanatical obsession with fine detail. The people who do really well at designing at least many kinds of typefaces probably rate on the autism spectrum considerably more often than the general public.

That said, there is plenty of evidence of historical sexism in the industry, not the least of which is the huge surge of women in type design over the past decade or so. Yay!

Rhetorical question time

Fiona Ross not being 10 x better known is due to:
(a) sexism
(b) Latin-centricity
(c) being a nameless cog in a corporate office
(d) all of the above

quadibloc's picture

I'd go for (b) and then (c) as the main reasons.

Incidentally, when searching for information about her, I found a page on the Adobe site. It credited her for designing "the phonetic keyboard for Indian scripts" which made desktop publishing in Indic scripts possible.

A web search only turned up, as a phonetic keyboard for Indic scripts, something called the INSCRIPT keyboard, which was designed by the Indian government. Other keyboards I came across included the Remington typewriter keyboard. But I didn't see anything credited to Adobe - or Linotype or Monotype, for that matter.

Ah: Linotype, 1978 - from here. But I see she's also credited with Yakout - and the invention of Simplified Arabic.

Not that it's really a bad thing to make it possible for people to communicate in their own language with technology that is limited, though that is sometimes forgotten when we criticize the persistence of expedients into the present when they are no longer needed. Of course, one of her other accomplishments was allowing the typesetting of Nastal'iq.

Ah: whatever the keyboard layout may have been, what she invented was the first keyboard that didn't require one to type in glyphs - the way a Remington typewriter keyboard naturally did - but instead did all that fancy stuff we today associate with Unicode.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Re-reading the original post:

Lindsay, it might be useful to email some women in type design, rather than asking them to reply in a public forum. As with any sensitive question, you might get some more honest and open responses in private.

You should definitely contact Sibylle Hagmann, who has written and presented on this topic. See the abstract of her paper at http://bg.biograficas.com/secciones/docs_complementarios/Non_existing_de...

quadibloc's picture

Your experience does not necessarily prove the existence of innate biological differences between girls and boys. After all, as their parents, you do not supply their total environment. They live in a world, and from their peers they are learning about what they need to do in order to survive most effectively.

That being said, no one should be surprised that innate biological differences in personality might exist. If you visit a dairy farm, you will be advised to take precautions around the bulls that you do not need to take around the cows. Yet cattle aren't people, and so they're not cultural beings, exposed to sexism from newspapers, radio, or television - or from playing video games. That doesn't mean their personality development doesn't involve their environment, but unlike culture, which is artificial, it's still a natural equilibrium between genes and the environment that is involved.

Current knowledge indicates that innate sex differences in humans are less extreme than among herd animals like deer or cattle; instead, wolves are closest to humans on this particular continuum, as, like wolves, but unlike chimpanzees (more differentiated) or bonobos (less differentiated), but like wolves, we hunt in packs.

That there are differences, though, doesn't excuse inequality. In the past, women were barred from nearly all the professions, and confined to the home and childrearing, basically by decree. What it does mean, though, is that if discrimination against women is ever completely eliminated, more women than men will still stay home and take care of the children, and so in that future age, we shouldn't panic and assume there is still some discrimination we haven't found.

JamesM's picture

Since typesetting businesses have been mentioned, I'll mention that where I work (in central Ohio) we used to have a typesetting business run by a woman, and all her employees were also women. The owner never mentioned to me any problems related to gender, and it was a successful business until desktop publishing put most of the local typesetters out of business.

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