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No, I'm Not The Cocktail Waitress... Why is Tech so Male Dominated? by Bree McCormack

From the September 2020 Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.

 For me and thousands of other lighting designers, March 2020 signified a pretty stark pivot from the lifestyle we’re used to: from high-impact, high-stakes, long, busy days leading into longer,  busier days to a very jarring opposite--a full stop: all things instantly cancelled, and cancelled for the foreseeable future.    

The shift is weird. It turns out, I am dreadfully unconditioned to navigate a world that does not revolve one hundred percent around work. Without a huge load-in or production meeting to stress about every day, I had to really dig deep to find out what my actual interests are. (I know, that’s very dark! But it’s true!) 

Initially I did what I saw everyone else doing- downloading TikTok, growing scallions, making sourdough, dissociating… I did all of it but It hasn’t stopped me from thinking about work all the time.

I am a lighting designer, I am 27 years old, I use  she/her pronouns, and for a big chunk of my professional life, I have been either the only one or one of few. The professional world of lighting design/ production is saturated, as you likely expect, with different pronouns: he/him. 

I would be lying if I said this imbalance was never an issue for me. Being mistaken at work for a cocktail  waitress, bartender, maitre d, or my personal favorite, “the assistant”--to whom, it is not always clear--often enough before being recognized as an actual engineer makes the general divide pretty tough to ignore. Being over-questioned by an overwhelming number of he/hims who are paid more to know less was also tough to ignore. Learning to rephrase tasks to crew as “big favors” to yield markedly better results, or having to explain to clients routinely who have questions for “the lighting guy” that you are “the lighting guy,” is also hard to miss…but I suppose my default response was always that these moments, however frequent, were just annoying industry standards. I figured the best way to manage was to not dwell.

As recently as December 2019, Porche McGovern reported that lighting designers who use she/her pronouns accounted for only 18.1% of those hired for the entire year’s programming within the League of Resident Theaters (LORT). Designers using they/them pronouns came in at an even more abysmal >0.1%. The study, “Who Designs in LORT Theaters by Pronoun,” has been ongoing since 2012, and from 2012 until 2019, it has shown  only a  nearly imperceptible increase in she/hers of about 5%… Five percent--over the course of seven years! 

It had never occurred to me that the statistics were that stagnant. I assumed eventually we’d see more representation in the field, and with that the pesky aforementioned micro-misogynies would somehow just fade away. After all, my undergrad experience, and even my very first internship for lighting, had far more balanced representation. It is not like there aren’t other designers and engineers in existence other than Caucasian he/hims. I have seen them! But somehow, I remain outnumbered on most projects. 

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What’s happening, then? Somewhere in the mix we are losing folks. My succinct theory is two-fold.  First, we are not setting everyone up for success from jump. One memory from my childhood has haunted me into adulthood. I once had to Google it to confirm it wasn’t actually a fever dream. It’s a commercial that aired in 2002; a PSA from the Girl Scouts of America that depicts a young girl and her dad on the beach. “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” she asks. He responds, “To match your pretty little eyes.” Then the girl says something like, “Nope, not even close!” and proceeds to fully serve scientific facts to her Dad, who sits there looking baffled. The commercial ends with a sage message to dads everywhere: “Don’t be afraid to engage your daughters in math and science.” 

In 2002, at nine years old, I found this message ludicrous. Why would we need a nationally broadcast PSA to reassure everyone’s dad that talking to their children about math and science is “nothing to be afraid of”? 

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When interviewing for this article, I asked as many designers as I could what the most intimidating element of lighting design was. Nearly across the board,  she/her designers answered “the technical work.” This means everything, from at-large to light board programming, master electrician work, and architectural calculation (drafting/ signal flow charts etc.): The math and the science. 

I now think the Girl Scouts had a point. It turns out those little micro-misogynies--the over-questioning by he/him counterparts--don’t come from nowhere. There is a reason people are dubious of engaging certain designers in the more “technical” elements, and as a result, certain designers become increasingly intimidated and perhaps even doubtful of their ability over time, death-by-a-thousand cuts style. From there it’s a slippery slope…

The second aspect of my theory is this: we aren’t keeping our receipts. In the lighting design field, it is pretty typical for those in hiring positions to quietly adopt a “no new friends” policy. You find a good crew, and you don’t want to take a risk on someone new. It makes sense, but can be dangerous.

I was recently introduced to a movement called “Waking the Feminists,” or #WTF, an initiative by she/her designers, technicians, playwrights, and directors in Ireland. As a result of an analysis of gender representation in Irish theater between 2006 and 2015, this initiative developed a system of accountability using Twitter. The #WTFCount challenge was proposed to Irish theater goers: take a pic of your program, write out the “carfax” (who worked on the show and their gender identities) and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #WTFCount. Since this movement began, the percentage of she/her and he/him representation has nearly evened out to a 50/50 split. 

So, imagine having a system like this in our own community. Might it encourage those with the ability to hire to “check thyself”? In my opinion,  the short--and long--answer should be “Yes.” 

As we wearily move into our sixth month without concert programming, it is as good a time as any to acknowledge that we have enough time and space to start visualizing what it might look like to re-enter the industry with a new perspective! Many industries are taking a much-needed look inward right now, and I’d like to deliver a friendly reminder that production should be no different.

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