Have women really come far in this industry?

Thoughts and experiences on a complex topic

Deborah Corn, the director of the Print Media Center in the U.S. and the self-styled Intergalactic Ambassador to the Printerverse, recently wrote a blog addressing sexual harassment in the industry. It’s getting a lot of attention and support all over the internet.

“How many penises have you seen in your workplace?”  she asks in The ugly truth of print shows, penises and #MeToo. Her number is two. It should have been zero.

Happily, I can report that for me the answer to her question is zero. But with men in high places grabbing headlines and body parts seemingly without restraint, and with one of our own columnists tackling the issue of female representation, I’d like to add my thoughts to this fraught and complex topic.

First off, I can say I have experienced no sexual harassment in this industry. None. The vast majority of men I’ve known over the years have been professional, supportive and, yes, gentlemanly. Most of them have been a pleasure to know, and some have become cherished friends.

But we women talk and I know that my experience is not universal. We know who the “handsy” men are and I’m sure my “press” badge and the media access I have has protected me to some extent. People tend to be on their best behaviour when there’s a tape recorder around.

Sexism still lives and it’s corrosive

But I have seen and experienced sexism. Sexism is subtle. It is not threatening like active harassment, but over time it is demoralizing, deflating and just tiring, even if the perpetrators are otherwise well-meaning and blithely unaware of their actions and their impact.

How does sexism manifest? A few examples:

I have been with small groups of men and invariably one of them will turn his back to me and, almost unthinkingly, physically exclude me from the conversation. Or my comments will be glossed over, talked over, and practically ignored. This happens more often than you might think, in both business and social settings.

It’s hard to quantify, but most women in this industry recognize that the old boys’ network is alive and well. We cope by rolling our eyes. I have seen reports and studies, and heard presentations that paint a rosy picture for women, but my experience tells me the hue of progress is a little more faded.

Most men don’t have to walk the aisles at tradeshows and look at male booth bunnies in scanty outfits or walk by life-size posters of bikini-clad males arched provocatively over motorized devices. They don’t have to hear women make sexual comments about those studs, and they don’t have to witness groups of women openly ogling and appraising those bunny assets.

I’d venture few men have walked into a print shop and seen posters of half-naked men showing off gleaming abs. I’ve seen lots of posters of naked women and often wondered how the females in those plants cope with it. Or why they should have to.

Women are not being pills when they complain about this. If the only female images the industry can reflect back to us is of naked, photoshopped, bodies, we all – men included – internalize the message that women are objects.

I have heard managers grumble that they hesitate to hire women of a certain age because they may go off and have children. When the federal government passed legislation to extend maternity leave for up to a year, this industry officially came out against that because it would be too hard for business. What message do you think that sent to me?

It’s great to see that so many young women are studying graphic communications. But after almost two decades in this industry, I haven’t really seen a significant improvement in the number of females in executive positions. Where are those women?

I have had few female role models in this industry. Mary Black, former head of the graphics communications program at Ryerson University stands out as an exception. She was tough, gutsy and made things happen. She was supportive. I don’t know where young women look for mentors today.

None of these experiences, taken alone and out of context, is cause for severe castigation of the industry. But repeated and experienced over years, they do have a cumulative effect. And that is to signal to women that we are just a little bit less and our road will be a little harder.

I actually do know the environment for women has improved substantially from a few decades ago and as an industry we have made great strides. But we have to continue to be vigilant about what lies below a polished-up surface, and be aware of how seemingly inconsequential actions can set a disconcerting tone.