It starts young. Picture books depicting women as nurses, men as doctors. You hear about an equal pay scandal on the news when you’re 13. In college when your female friends are pursuing Chemistry, Maths, Computer Science and Physics they’re outnumbered. None of it makes sense but it’s just how society works, that’s what we subconsciously are taught anyway.
As women we are told there are certain doors that are simply locked, or incredibly hard to prise open or maybe only some women have the right key. There is hierarchy in everything.
STEM based jobs, degrees and subjects have always had this reputation and have never shyed away from it. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are all seen as credible and difficult paths which stems (pun not intended) from the bizarre correlation/causation we’ve developed where automatically when a man does something it is seen as difficult, complex as well as worthy of a high salary.
Previously women in STEM were falling at the first hurdle, the hostile spaces were too alien to even consider taking the required school qualifications to enter further education. They weren’t even trying to open the door because no one encouraged them to turn the knob.
That has begun to change, there are initiatives, programs, scholarships now for women in STEM even university societies to create community and safety in these new spaces.
It is key to remember that women don’t want to take away opportunities from men, they just want their equal chance. I understand that when this conversation starts men feel threatened and feel like what is being said is that the only reason they achieved what they achieved was because of their gender and not on their merit. Note the word feel, because it is just a feeling. I’ve had several conversations with guys about this and what happens next is normally a very extreme and sometimes questionable story about positive discrimination.
My favourite of these being a guy telling me about positive discrimination and favouritism within his final year finance lecture for his degree, in which he spoke about the ‘four girls in his class’ to which I responded and asked how many were in the lecture overall.
It was 200. He didn’t understand why I started to laugh.
The problem with the immediate assumption of positive discrimination and ‘filling quotas’ when it comes to the employment of women, especially women of colour and other minority women is that it shows you don’t believe these women could have got there on their own merit.
Women taking their seat at the table doesn’t pull away a chair from underneath a man. Don’t see it as squeezing more seats at the table but that a bigger table was simply bought that can accommodate everyone.
However, despite progress in getting women into these spaces, the amount of women in the top spaces across these sectors is still few and far between.
My personal realisation of this happened in my first term of university while studying the breakdown of media industries and how they function. As a part of this we studied gender in the media industry. It wasn’t good but the part of the seminar that stood out to me was when we discussed a director’s UK report from 2016.
The main take from it was despite there being a fairly equal balance of men and women studying filmmaking at university level only 12.8 per cent of women directed high budget films (under £500,000) and only three point three per cent of big budget feature films. Now directing is not the part of the media industry but it represents the power dynamic.
Many of my female classmates stated how motivated they felt to change the system, take down the patriarchy one production company at a time. But honestly? I just felt completely disheartened. My naivety surrounding the industry I wanted to enter was quickly dawning on me and I began thinking I had made a horrible mistake.
The assumption that you will be safe from a heavily male dominated because it is a humanities or communications based industry as opposed to a STEM pathway is a misleading safety net once that stats start rolling in quickly doesn’t seem so comforting.
It’s also difficult because there is not much work you can do at the bottom. You can’t make too much noise for fear of not actually getting a job and working your way up is already hard enough. Productions who have just at least one woman as an executive producer have higher percentages of women directors, writers, editors than those with exclusively male ex producers.
It doesn’t matter if you’re going into communications, STEM or law the foundations are the same you just find out at different times. Aspiring women in STEM are taught from the get go that they will have to work twice as hard (more so if you’re not white and middle class) whereas it’s a sharp shock for other groups finding out you’re still at a disadvantage even if you’re not studying biochemistry.
It is also important to note I write this as a white, hetrosexual middle class english woman. I have numerous advantages over other women based on their race, nationality, and sexual orientation.
Last year I read a book called ‘Taking Up Space’ by Chelsea Kwakye, who is British-Ghanaian and Ore Ogunbiyi, who is Nigerian-British. It’s about the different experiences black girls have at university from their fellows. In the first chapter Chelsea spoke about how there is sometimes pressure from families to choose a degree course that has a direct vocational path like medicine or law as opposed to humanities subjects like english, media or history where there is no guaranteed job outcome or path of how to get one.
It would be ignorant to ignore my own privilege while I attempt to break into the media industry. There is progress coming in all shapes and sizes – Chloe Zhao’s win at the Oscars opened another door.
I really want to end this on a super positive note. I can’t really. My main takeaway is that a combination of my talent, hard work and my privilege does give me a good shot at kicking a door down and hopefully doing so for others too.
In one of my seminars we discussed ‘Rocks’, a film that came out in 2019. In an interview with the all female creative team they spoke about how they were able to get the film made. It was a concept film and there wasn’t much of a firm script or direction with the piece as they wanted to work with their cast of young black girls in a collaborative effort. Despite the majority of the creative team being black they used the only white woman on the team as a ‘Trojan horse’ to pitch what seemed like a very vague plan to producers for money. I don’t have to explain why that worked.
Although my initial reaction to the disproportionate amount of women in high positions in media industries was of “let’s just crawl into a ball and change degrees” honestly after really thinking about it, I want to be the Trojan horse. I want to achieve and make content and films and help create diverse and beautiful teams showcasing others.
It starts young but it doesn’t finish until you’re done with it.
Featured image – Canva