Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Women in the Scene Shop

Recently on a woman started a conversation about the frustration and annoyance she feels being a woman technician in the theatre world. I have struggled with this issue a lot personally and I wanted to share some of my opinions, experiences and decisions.

I feel like this issue is the constant struggle of women working in the industry. We face double standards and catch 22s a lot. You are told that in order to get any respect you must be able to do exactly the same amount of work as your male counterparts, but at the same time you should accept help when offered by a "gentleman" and know your limits. You are told to speak up for yourself and assert your skills and your rights, but speak up too much and people of will get frustrated at that woman who cries sexism at every turn.

First I think I should mention my incredible good fortune to have been brought into the world of technical theatre and trained by a women, the technical director of my college theatre program. I was able to start in a place where being female made absolutely no difference at all. By learning in an environment that was so gender-equal I was able to understand what my work environment should feel like, and I have been better able to recognize that type of environment and later create it myself.

My boss at one of my first professional jobs, when explaining why he hired me, explained something else for me incredibly well. He told me that he often doesn't like working with young female technicians because they often talk about their work like they have something to prove. He explained how he had interviewed another woman for the job who, during the interview, mentioned again and again how she was just as good as the male carpenters and he was completely put off by it. Since then my personal rule has been to avoid acting like I have something to prove and instead act like I've already proven it. This is not to say that I don't work my butt off, but I do it with confidence. I don't need to be looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is judging me, I work like I know that they aren't.

When I first started out as a carpenter, I refused to accept my limits. I remember unloading lumber trucks at my first summer stock job. I would watch the master carpenter take a stack of six 2x4s off of the truck and say to myself, "if Adam can carry six then I can carry six," and I would. The problem is that I was completely ignoring the physics of the situation and probably risking seriously injuring myself. Adam was literally twice my size. Regardless of gender, Adam should have been able to carry more lumber than me. I have since learned to respect the laws of physics. Sometimes the guys can do the heavier lifting, and that's ok. And I know some women in the industry will argue with me, but if some condescending guy comes up to me moving something heavy and gives me a "let me help you with that sweetheart," I let them. I find it much more effective not to argue, I just hand off the heavy thing and move onto something equally heavy/challenging/or high skill. Eventually the smart ones will understand that you are perfectly capable of handling yourself, and the ones who don't weren't going to get it anyway.

The biggest struggle for me as a woman in a job dominated by men was reconciling my behavior at work with my feminist political and social views. As a feminist I have been taught that I shouldn't let anything slide, that the details are the fight of my generation if we want to achieve real equality. I have felt at times though that by pointing out the details in terms of gender equality, the attention shifts away from the thing that is most important, my work.I have been fortunate not to work with any extreme bigots, but I have noticed that while men are willing to adjust their points of view, once they begin to think of me as someone who knows about gender issues and workplace reform, they forget, on some level, the most important thing- my expertise in technical theatre.  As a result I have started picking my battles a little bit more. I will still stand up for myself on important issues, but I let a lot slide. My hope is that I am making things just a little bit better for the women who will come after me. I hope that a pleasant experience with me (and maybe a few good natured reminders) will result in male technicians showing the next female they work with that much more respect from the start.

Like I've said, I've struggled a lot with this issue, and I'm not sure all of my conclusions are final. I would love to hear about your experiences with similar issues.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jesse. I teach children's theatre in Ohio. check out
    With shameless plug out of the way, I will tell you how I stumbled upon your blog. I am working on a game for a group of girls that leads to my teaching on fantastic women in the theatre. While researching I of course found a ton of Actresses, fewer directors, even fewer writers of this century, and struggle to find female technician role models. The way the game is played, the girls match a picture with the title and accomplishment. The lesson follows. Outside of yourself, ( would you mind your image in participation?) Do you have a list of inspiring theatrical female techs?