July 2018 edit: It’s been about a year since I originally wrote this, and it’s sparked endless conversations about paper cuts and microaggressions in the post production industry, and even a session with the Diversity Steering Committee at the Motion Picture Editors Guild last fall. This isn’t a problem that’s going away anytime soon, but when we talk about it we normalize it. We make it okay to be fed up and frustrated, and we make it essential to find each other and vent it out. I’ve updated this post a little bit with things I’ve learned since, and I hope it helps people to understand what women, especially non-white women, are facing in media industries.
For years I’ve been citing research about women leaving the post production industry in droves once they hit the glass ceiling and have had enough. A lot of people say women leave at this point because they’re just not that interested in pursuing it any further or they wish to raise kids and start a family.
Their presence at this point isn’t questioned or missed. Half the crowd says “what are you talking about, I work with tons of women” and the other half says “well, what can you do? Women just want to leave.”
I’m on the verge of being 32. In what I’ve experienced of my thirties so far, I have met more women in my age bracket than ever who have changed careers or are seeking to make a change. And this change isn’t prompted by unrest or a desire to try new things.
No way. These women? They’re tired.
For years I’ve been citing research and anecdotes from people an arm’s length away at least. Now I’m talking about my peers and seeing it happen first hand.
These women have spent the entirety of their twenties and then some trying to prove themselves like anyone does, but they’ve had to do it even harder. And once they proved themselves they had to KEEP proving themselves. (Yes, men also have to prove themselves. But not because the assumption is that they are naive and non-technical.)
They have had to work to command respect and be treated like peers and not subordinates.
They have had to remind the men (and women) around them that they aren’t children but rather experienced professionals.
They’ve had to have uncomfortable conversations about their family planning strategies or future plans with bosses in order to shake any assumptions away that could destroy their careers.
They’ve had to constantly balance between being too ambitious or not wanting it hard enough.
They’ve had to find a way to be strong without being bossy.
They get stuck in assistant editor and coordinator and junior roles while their male peers are promoted more rapidly.
They’re paid less for their work and given fewer benefits.
And they’re supposed to be grateful for these opportunities.
Women show up at networking events and get hit on, so they have to think hard about what they’re wearing and have a plan to leave when a stranger goes too far.
They get over-talked and interrupted during meetings, so they must strategize or force their hand and risk an issue with their tone.
Their opinions aren’t taken seriously, so they must carefully craft and design every argument ahead of time.
They’re infantilized by their coworkers and must find a way to demonstrate their experience and skills without insulting or threatening anyone.
Their experiences are put down by other women who have bought into the gender bias that pits women against each other.
And on top of all this, they’ve had to learn and grow as professionals in our industry, constantly meeting new people, finding more opportunities, and gaining new skills. On top of the normal stuff anyone has to do to make it in this industry, women have a whole separate agenda to focus on.
And it’s not like we really want to do that. I would love to never speak about diversity ever again. I’d love to just focus on my tech work and build my skills and go home and play video games. But I can’t stop talking about diversity until it’s resolved.
I know what you’re thinking. This industry is hard. Navigating your career is hard. Before you think these women can’t cut it, think about this: if you’re able to scale a mountain much quicker and easier than a person wearing 50 pound weights on their feet, would you say you’re better or more worth of being at the summit than they are?
Because women pursue careers in post and technology with weights on their feet.
Let me give you an example of a simple interaction in your day that exhausts me. If you’re a man, maybe you come up to me in the workplace to speak to me and place your hand on my back, a little lower than I would ever expect. You think nothing of it, and you return to your work. In the moment between when your hand touches and leaves my back, I enter a spiral of strategic decision-making: is he going to slide it down? What if he does? Should I ask him not to touch me? If I ask him that, will he think I’m overly sensitive and emotional? Will he tell my mostly male coworkers I over-react to simple things? Will they remember it, even subconsciously, when it’s time for me to be promoted? Will I miss out on a key step upward in the company if that happens? Will I stunt my career growth externally? Will I be unable to meet my professional and financial life goals because of it? If I don’t say something, am I being complicit in a rape culture? What if it keeps happening and sends a message? What do I do?
Maybe you think this is overly dramatic, but it’s vital to every woman to think about the consequences of every interaction on the work life tight rope. And yes, it’s incredibly exhausting for women.
And now these women are so tired and I’m watching them leave. They wouldn’t leave if they weren’t so spent. They would stay and use their incredible skills to tell the stories that need to be told with so many important perspectives.
This is the excessive emotional labor we put on women, which has been well-documented as a major stressor that wears women down. Tack on dealing with an industry with long days, egos, and tight deadlines, and it’s a small wonder so many of us make it at all. And women’s groups are no better: if technical women are the focus of any organization, it’s usually as a requirement to apologize and make up for their own invisibility. Groups that support women in film and women in media really only support certain subsets of privilege women in high level roles, and place the emotional labor on already exhausted women to represent themselves.
Some dissent in the comments on the original posting of this blog mentioned that women being handed the biological task of having babies is just the way it is, and it means a lot more of them are going to leave their careers behind because they have other responsibilities.
It’s true that many women do choose to leave employment to raise children. I think that’s great. I think men and women both should have that choice presented to them. However, there is no path back into the industry for women who choose to do this. There are women who spent six years raising a son or daughter and wish to go back to work, but no employer will entertain the thought of hiring someone with a gap in employment, regardless of why or how much work they did to keep themselves up to date with their tools.
There is also the matter that there are women who will not choose to have children. You can’t assume anything from anyone. Your management contingency plan for hiring women should be to treat them fairly, pay them equally, and restructure your workplace so they can thrive regardless of their choices.
But I can’t shake this idea of shrugging off child birth as a simple fact of biology handed to women. There are so many women in this industry who have children and want to return to work within a year. A lot of them can’t find a way to make it work, physically or emotionally, and leave. “Ah well,” the employers say, “we can’t help what responsibilities nature gave them.”
We can grow human organs in dishes. We can replace lost arms and legs. We can perform transplants of nearly anything anymore. We can transfuse blood. We can perform c-sections. Biotechnology has never been more advanced — and you’re telling me we can’t find a solution to helping mothers stay in their jobs when they choose to stay?
We all need to fight harder to make our workplaces more inclusive and welcoming. We need to do gender bias training. We have to aggressively seek out women to hire and provide a path for ascending within the industry. We need supportive organizations that are truly inclusive and focused.
Because if we don’t have these diverse people working in an industry that is evolving and changing so rapidly, we’re going to miss out on vital innovations that would allow it to be a sustainable business in the future.
But even worse, we’re going to keep destroying passionate women who work hard to stake their claim in our industry. And no matter what that means for your business bottom line, it’s plain wrong.
Further reading from me on this topic:
Sexism in Post
Open Letter to Companies Exhibiting at NAB
Sexism in Post podcast interview
Sexism in VFX podcast interview
Ten Questions on Gender Issues in Post
Gender Equality in Post Production