“It is not enough that we just exist”: A discussion on the continued imbalance of female representation in type design
When compiling Global Type, our directory of 100 independent foundries around the world, the imbalance of female leadership became immediately clear. In this extract of our report, we sit down with three practitioners to discuss why this divide is still present.
Global Type was developed by It’s Nice That’s Creative Insights team, a new department that carries out research and analyses of visual trends in the creative world. This team was behind The Lazy Report, published in January, and will be releasing downloadable reports throughout the year, so keep an eye out for more over the coming months. This piece is an extract from Global Type, which you can download directly (for free!) below.
In recent years, when conversation turns to female designers’ contribution to the heavily male-dominated industry that is type design, attention has focused on recognising specific and often historical figures. Subsequently, heralded individuals who paved the way for women in type – from Elizabeth Friedlander, one of the first women to design a typeface, to creator of the Rail Alphabet font, Margaret Calvert – are regularly pointed towards alongside an enthusiastic “Look! They were here all along!” narrative. And while educating ourselves on their output is worthwhile, when faced with the remaining lack of female-founded, or female-led foundries on a global scale today, looking to the past feels a little redundant.
There are of course plenty of resources available to discover women in type working across the industry at present – titles such as A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography and Femme Type have been vital in researching this report – with increasing numbers of emerging, independent female-identifying typographers entering the industry. Yet the numbers falter when we look closer at leadership positions and in turn, influential mentors for those learning type design to look up to.
For a discussion on this very point, we sat down with three individuals from alternate areas of type design: Aasawari Kulkarni, an India-born, Washington DC-based educator and designer with an independent practice centred around type; Nadine Chahine, Lebanese type designer and founder of ArabicType and font distribution site and type academy I Love Typography; and Chantra Malee, the co-founder and CEO of Sharp Type and founder of The Malee Scholarship, which aims to advance and empower women who are part of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the type design field.
The following conversation was conducted over WhatsApp one evening, London time, in February 2023, while Nadine walked her dog round the block in her now home of Barcelona, Chantra texted in between looking after her newborn in early morning West Coast America and Aasawari began her day in Washington. Despite the incredible work and change these three individuals have advocated for in type design, this conversation was an opportunity to vent about this subject matter and while it may not provide a concise answer of next steps, it is a vital discussion on the imbalance of gender representation in type, and the effects this can have on female-identifying creatives currently operating within it.
It’s Nice That: As you know, we’ve been developing a report of 100 foundries and type designers across the world. I hadn’t originally planned to feature a conversation such as the one we’re having today, but we’ve been shocked at how few female-founded type foundries there are in comparison to those led by men.
I think I was admittedly naive about how much I perceived the field had changed in recent years, with platforms like Femme Type, and the work of yourselves and many emerging designers. With this in mind, I thought it would be great to start with how you feel gender representation is across the work you do currently?
Nadine Chahine: Your observation is very much on the mark!
Chantra Malee: Agreed!
Nadine Chahine: When we were inviting foundries to join I Love Typography we noticed how few foundries were led by women, so we started a mentorship programme for those that are led or co-led by women. For many years the industry has patted itself on the back, pointing to the female designers all around and yet no one looked at how many of them are in a position of leadership, and how many were leading the medium sized foundries, and they were so few. This will write women out of history, again, and there is so much we can contribute.
So, the point is: in order to answer the question of gender representation and equity, it is not enough that we just exist. We need to exist on every level.
Chantra Malee: Nadine, I really like what you have to say here.
Aasawari Kulkarni: Agreed, when it comes to researching and finding the contribution of women in (type) design history, it has been difficult. It is indeed good to have platforms and resources that highlight contemporary designers, but a steep hill to climb when it comes to history.
Chantra Malee: That was certainly something I identified shortly after joining the industry, which led to my founding of the Malee Scholarship to provide financial support, mentorship, and a platform for emerging female type designers. There is so much unacknowledged talent out there that needs to be brought to the forefront and recognised.
Nadine Chahine: Absolutely. There is so much imposter syndrome and very high barriers to overcome, just because you're a woman.
Chantra Malee: Indeed!
It's Nice That: I completely agree, especially around elements of leadership. With this in mind, but taking a step back slightly, would you be able to share more about how you felt studying design and the gender divide on your respective courses? And did you feel supported in those institutions?
Nadine Chahine: At university level there were quite a lot of female designers but once we got to the real world, those in positions of power were almost always men. Both at university and at work, there were mentor figures for me who 100 per cent supported me, and there were others who perhaps were uncomfortable with the scale of my ambitions. Like, I could be a little bit ambitious, but I should stay in my little corner and not make waves.
Chantra Malee: That’s a good question. I think from my own personal experience, I felt very supported by most of my professors that I could achieve excellence. I feel very lucky and grateful for that. It was a different experience after I started to work professionally, where I began to experience the gender gap in a profound way. That can be quite a blow to a young adult, who is starry eyed and full of expectation.
Nadine Chahine: I was told no one will hire me after my masters because “I haven't paid my dues”.
Aasawari Kulkarni: In India, most of my classes and professors were women. While college felt like a very supportive environment, it was more difficult to even get in the door. I got shot down by someone saying they were not there to hold my hand and teach me type design, they were running a business and not a design school.
This was very disheartening to a new student. Where or how would I learn if something wasn't taught in school – which is why finding mentors in the industry has been SO important.
Nadine Chahine: Ouch, that's terrible…
Aasawari Kulkarni: And I got my ITF internship after that comment as well – where someone literally did hold my hand and teach me!
Nadine Chahine: Amazing!
Chantra Malee: So incredible.
It’s Nice That: Off the back of this, I wanted to also ask you Nadine about your career at some of the most prestigious and large scale type foundries. Were these mostly male dominated at the time, and did this affect your experience?
Nadine Chahine: Yes, they were definitely male dominated. You find your allies and you walk past the ones who get in the way. I joined when I was 26 and I was very aware that I had to work twice as hard just to prove that I got my role for merit, not any other reason (there was the occasional gossip and I just had to tune that out). There were incidents, of course – worse as I had higher positions – where it felt that I was not allowed to exercise my authority because of my gender, and that's when you stand your ground and fight.
It’s Nice That: This is a perfect analogy: “You find your allies and you walk past the ones who get in the way.” I am so sorry to hear that though, and it's particularly frustrating to hear it became worse as you moved higher up.
Nadine Chahine: To be honest, I only realised the scale of that impact when I quit my job in 2018. I had learned to toughen up so much, so that I could survive those meetings and long emails, that I stopped feeling like a woman. I was in fighting mode non-stop. After I removed myself from that environment I suddenly felt safe enough to be me, and not the warrior me.
Aasawari Kulkarni: I'm sorry you had to go through that. That really sucks.
Chantra Malee: I had to take a moment with this question, because I have worked with many incredible men who I love to work with, but it certainly hasn't always been that way.
When I was a young professional, I was running many projects for clients who were all men. I was treated very well by some, and I’m still friends with them in fact, but others were very disrespectful and made me feel very small. I once received an email from a client, an older man, who wrote an incredibly vindictive and hurtful email that came at me personally telling me I was incompetent and mentioned hateful things. I knew this was his own stress about his business and unhappiness with our agency as a whole, but he felt empowered to bully the young woman on the job and not address the two male partners, who were really the ones that should have been addressed. That experience has always stuck with me.
Nadine Chahine: So true about taking it out on the young women! I do have to admit though: I learned so much from so many colleagues so it wasn't all too bad. Many I am still friends with today!
It’s Nice That: I am so sorry that it was this way for you, but equally thank you for sharing these day-to-day aspects of working in design that people need to hear.
Aasawari Kulkarni: I'm sorry that happened to you.
Chantra Malee: I really know where you’re coming from here, Nadine. You know I had an interesting interaction with someone in the holistic world, who was reading my energy, and saw that my Yang was overpowering my Yin. For those who don’t know, Yang represents the masculine and Yin the feminine in every individual. I’m no expert, but that is the gist of it. She continued to say that she experiences this with a lot of women who are working professionally in any industry. Whether or not one believes in the spiritual aspect of this, I think this is an incredible insight. From a personal point of view, I realised I was taking on this role of the masculine, feeling the need to fill in a more masculine set of shoes to earn respect and maintain authority in my position.
Nadine Chahine: For me it felt like I needed steel to run in my veins...
Chantra Malee: Yes, absolutely.
Aasawari Kulkarni: I’m coming from a slightly different background here, but I know what you both mean. In the expectations that my students have in me vs a male professor; of having to be extra stern, extra dominant to be taken seriously in the classroom, even if that might not be in my nature.
It’s Nice That: That's so unfortunate. I'm so interested in what you're seeing as an educator at the moment Aasawari, would you be able to share some insight from recent or current classes you’re teaching? Are these barriers something that’s discussed, or are there narratives behind their work which speak to issues such as this?
Aasawari Kulkarni: The good thing I'm noticing is that students expect teachers to include women in the narrative. They hold us accountable.
I had an interesting conversation with a student last year when we were talking about what it means to design with a feminist lens. She told me later that she has had classes where one class of the semester was dedicated to “women designers” which didn't feel inclusive exactly. And so conversations about gender in design with a new generation are encouraging to have.
Beyond that, like I was saying earlier, I think as a young woman in the classroom setting, I have to be extra careful. I have found strong mentorship in women in higher positions and without that I think it wouldn't be easy to go on dealing with the experience. It's easier to talk over young women than it is with older men and the fact that even young students can see this is kind of sad. Academia is taxing. I don't think I could survive without the support and shared experience with my colleagues.
It’s Nice That: That's so interesting and I completely resonate with having a group of people around you who lift you up – and tell you to step up when needed! Thank you for sharing, it's really brilliant to have a voice of someone interacting with students here.
I suppose it's slightly different for you Chantra, now being the co-founder of a foundry. Are there things you have in place to ensure that this behaviour doesn't happen at your own company?
Chantra Malee: Absolutely. As we grow our team, we’re of course always looking for those with talent, but a lot of it comes down to their personal qualities. We invite people who we believe, have a moral framework akin to our own. Whenever I interview a new candidate, I emphasise the importance of respecting one another at our foundry. We’re all on the same team. We believe that everyone has their own set of talents, and it’s a matter of finding it in each person and giving them enough autonomy to explore and develop those innermost skills. I think that’s the way to accomplish great things, by encouraging and truly respecting others. I always say in my interviews that first and foremost everyone must respect one another, and we are not a team who gossips or speaks poorly behind another’s back. I had that in previous jobs, and it is so incredibly toxic and unproductive.
It's Nice That: I suppose a wider question to you all... Like we’ve all said, there appears to be a barrier to enter the industry when it comes to female-identifying individuals setting up their own practices or foundries as type designers. They certainly seem to be working within type foundries, but not necessarily forming their own. But where do you each believe this actually stems from? What are the blocks we need to work towards breaking down?
Aasawari Kulkarni: I think the things I'm thinking about are like a summary of many things we've spoken about. Not having the required confidence, support, and examples to look up to. I am in the process of releasing my first typeface ever and without the generous mentorship I have received in the industry, I would be nowhere close to this process. I'm still not confident because of the many past experiences of being shut down, laughed at. I go through this after having received tons of support; and wonder how many immensely talented women out there are not receiving the required mentorship, support, and confidence to build something. Which is why the existence of programmes like Alphabettes mentorship and Malee scholarship is so, so important. It's not just a one off thing but can build so much up AND can build a belief in you.
Nadine Chahine: It's a complex situation with many factors at play. Firstly, until recently there were very few role models for this. Secondly, imposter syndrome (and I expect that to inhibit women more than men). Then, the demands of running a business spill over outside of a nine to five, so if you're planning a family this becomes difficult very quickly (women typically shoulder more burdens at home so there is less capacity to bring work home too). Finally, male-led startups are more likely to get funding (the statistics on this are terrible for women) so raising money for a startup is difficult for women. This means that there is a financial barrier as well.
Then there is also a wider societal issue of what society teaches young boys and girls. Men are encouraged to lead, women to foster and nurture a "home" environment. What society has often failed to understand is that an emotionally balanced work environment, where people prosper, is the key to unlock so much.
Aasawari Kulkarni: 1,000 per cent. Women are considered too ambitious to want to build something. They are also shamed for not being the caretakers of the household and for taking into account their own interests first.
Chantra Malee: I completely agree with this. Both sexes are equally capable, but objectively there are fewer roadblocks for some over others. I think also, we’d be remiss not to mention that this is not only an issue of gender. One's race and social standing can inhibit one’s “success” as well. A question that we ask all applicants at Malee, is to describe one’s financial need. A lot of our applicants don’t have access to the same resources from software programs to books. How can one compete if they can’t get the same education or access to tools as others can?
Nadine Chahine: We've seen the world that alpha males have built; plagued by war and rampant capitalism. A world where women take leadership roles alongside men can perhaps build a kinder society. One where empathy is a plus not a minus.
Chantra Malee: Building off of Nadine’s comments, I believe there has to be a shift in priorities. At least in the western world I am glad to see we’re starting to question our capitalist society where world power is considered the most valuable currency. It drives the individual to serve one’s self often at the cost of others and they are lauded for it. I think we need to restructure or redefine what success means. Prioritising a thriving community versus a single person would objectively make for a better world. Perhaps if we looked beyond ourselves as individuals we would have free healthcare for all in the wealthiest nation in the world, an education system that was truly equal opportunity, and a food system that nourished us, rather than make us more sickly. I enjoy a challenge, and I think competition is and can be very healthy, but we’ve gone too far in that direction.
Aasawari Kulkarni: I completely agree with this and want to add that, as an Indian here in the United States, the isolation can be deeply felt especially when you've grown up in a community-oriented society like India. I have often felt that instead of looking at the west as an epitome of idealistic society we would be better off looking at our roots that preach values of community and at individual work as something that might yield results for the greater good.
It's Nice That: To be honest, I would say I found it quite difficult to plan questions for this conversation as it feels like a conversation that has been had multiple times, but this was so brilliant thanks to you all. I guess lastly, what would you say to any female-identifying practitioners out there who are on the fence of taking that leap of setting up their own initiative?
Aasawari Kulkarni: I felt that way while answering many questions to be honest. But I think conversations like these, even if they feel repetitive, will drive the point home, hopefully away from just those that are part of the echo chamber.
Nadine Chahine: I do want to stress a point: just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible and the more of us who fight forward, the easier it will be for those who come after. I think this would be my answer to those who are on the fence. Also to know that the rest of us have their back and we will do everything we can to support.
And finally, we can no longer accept that women are written out of the history of type. As long as we do not have the space to tell our stories, no one else will. So we need to step up and lead.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.