Ada Lovelace Day rolled around again last month and I was, honestly, too busy doing STEM related stuff to blog about it. I had to content myself with a couple of social media posts on the subject and a few regretful thoughts about the times when the day would have prompted a veritable essay on the subject.
It did, however, make me want to write about it for the first time in ages.
Initially I tweeted about the tiny robots I’d spent the previous weekend building. Which are rather charming and deserve their own post about my adventures in electronics.
But I also tweeted about my office that week.
It turns out that I have feelings about the way we talk about STEM.
I’ve always considered myself to be a woman working in STEM. (Regardless of whether or not I happen to be getting paid for it at any particular moment.) My primary professional identity since I qualified, has been Sound Designer, but when I have to explain what I do to people not in the industry, I fall back on the first title I was given at 15 working on a school musical. Sound Tech. It covers a multitude of sins. (Sound Designer, Sound Mixer, Sound Recordist, Boom Operator, Dialogue Editor, Foley Artist, Sound Artist, Documentary Maker, Radio Production Person, Radio DJ, Radio OA/PA, Technical Operator.) I’m a tech: I work in Technology. My STEM heroes that I’ve written about for Ada Lovelace days past have all been women working at the intersection of sound and technology. I’ve never seen the contradiction in that. Yet, every year as I read through the posts and tweets that abound on the day, it occurs that for most people the Technology in STEM means Information Technology and Computing and that’s it. The rest of us become invisible.
Film and television have a very firm divide between ‘creatives’ and ‘techs’ – which is a little ridiculous when you consider that most techs in the industry have to be pretty creative to find solutions to the practical problems of transforming script into ‘reality’ – just look at the different way the awards for ‘creative’ aspects of film are treated compared to those for ‘technical’ or ‘craft’ roles.
For the majority of my career I’ve worked freelance and currently, due to geography and fortunate circumstances, roughly 50% of the time I’m a Technical Operator for a major broadcaster in their Newsroom. It’s a regional outpost, so the technical staff is small and multi-skilled. We work across television and radio, shooting news pieces for journalists, editing footage, operating satellite trucks and sound desks, vision mixing news bulletins, crawling under desks trying to figure out if that clicking noise is just a loose connection or the sound desk slowly dying… It’s varied and interesting. It’s also a majority male job. Not that I’m the only woman on the job, I have a fair number of female colleagues both in our office and in other branches throughout the country. Enough that I’ve never felt like an oddity in the role. That, by and large, tech colleagues I meet presume I’m competent on first meeting and treat any gaps they find in my knowledge as an opportunity to wax lyrical about their specialist subject, rather than to patronisingly dismiss me. Over the years I’ve made friends and found mentors amongst my colleagues and had supervisors of both genders that had my back and supported my professional development. Such an ordinary, normal experience but one that I know that many other women in STEM don’t get to have.
Whatever limitations the recession has inflicted on my career development over the years, I’m only too aware that I’ve been lucky. It’s been nearly a decade since the last time I sat in a job interview and watched my interviewer struggle to find an appropriate way to ask a question that was essentially ‘why would a girl want to do this job?’ (Protip: There isn’t one. If you do ask then the answer is ‘if you have to ask then I don’t want to work here.’) Women were an oddity in the field 50 years ago, by now we’re an accepted minority. If anyone still thinks there shouldn’t be women in the job, they’re smart enough to keep their mouth shut. If I’m being discriminated against, it’s subtle enough that I don’t notice.
So in my experience its not other techs who question what I’m doing in the job. It’s people in other jobs. From ‘creatives’ who presume I’m just using it as a stepping stone into their side of things – well, I’m certainly hoping it’ll be a stepping stone to a permanent job – to the sundry people, of all ages and genders, that I’ve worked with in other jobs over the years who, with varying levels of tact and diplomacy, asked why on earth I wanted to do a ‘boy’ job – it’s a job? That I enjoy and I’m good at?
Even people who are otherwise pro getting more women in STEM careers seem to overlook the T. Perhaps its not glamorous enough or not cerebral enough. Our discoveries and triumphs are unlikely to change the world. Most of the time we’re invisible backroom girls, and many of us prefer it that way, but do us a favour and don’t erase us further.