Women in the workplace: challenging ‘male’ spaces

My name is Hannah, and I’m a nineteen year old self-confessed cinema fanatic. I would love to be involved in the creative, wonderful world of movie making in whichever way possible, because to me; it’s everything. It’s shaped who I am as a person. The power of cinema is extremely strong and has been a healing force in my life upon occasion. I’m also a female, a fact I thought I was aware of (funny that, after 19 years on planet earth!), yet strangely I’m acutely aware of this fact now more than ever before. 

I’ve experienced the working environment before. Having been slowly gaining experience in the TV and Film industry since I was 13, I have some sort of idea how things work. But don’t get me wrong: I’m only beginning the start of my career. This idea of a ‘career’  is a concept I have always been fascinated with. The idea of shaping your own life and path has always compelled me. I’m a career-orientated woman, and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. Wanting to succeed isn’t something to be ashamed of. So, as fancy internships started to come my way from top production companies and shows, I thought to myself: ‘I’ve got to go in there, work my ass off and get my foot in the door’- and believe me, the Film and TV industry is a door tightly glued shut. 

But I began to receive recognition for my hard-work. I was forming contacts with genuinely lovely and likeminded people, getting invites to events and being put forward for jobs. It was like a crazy whirl-wind. I felt like my whole attitude towards working hard was paying off and I felt proud that this part of myself which before I would be self-conscious of, was shining. But I couldn’t escape the fact that ultimately, despite being a film buff and a hard-working individual with potential, I also walk into the world of work as a woman. And this is where the story changes. For the first time I was getting recognition for my strong work ethic, but I was also exposed to sexism which, even if delivered with a laugh and a smile as if it were a joke, existed. It was there. Sometimes quiet. Sometimes numbingly loud. 

There are experiences that stick with me out of pure disbelief. One time I was introduced to an individual on a set and straight away I was ridiculously eager to learn as much as I could from them.They were a big deal. And considering I had this  work-experience opportunity, it would make sense to make the most of it. And we got on well. We were telling jokes. He even gave me a hug at the end of one of the days and I remember feeling proud of myself for making such a great contact despite crippling nerves and being in an unfamiliar environment. 

And then, as if he was Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball hurtling towards me, he dropped a question with fixed eyes and a serious tone, that hit me hard. “Are you romantically engaged?” I was taken aback. The question was so unexpected that I thought he’d asked if I was actually engaged and about to walk down the aisle. Had I accidentally moved my ring from my right hand? I replied “No, not engaged” with a nervous laugh, later feeling a fool for misinterpreting the question. He went on to clarify. “No, I mean is there a he or a she in your life?”. My heart sank. Why is this married grown man in his forties, concerned with my relationship status when I’m here to work? What is the need? And that is only one of many. I’m always getting asked if I have a boyfriend as if it’s something I’d write on my CV under ‘Hobbies’. Too many times now to even count. And sometimes they really do get hilarious. 

On one occasion, I was asked by a group of men if I’d be willing to join their department as they “could do with a young, attractive woman”. Oh, they were laughing their arses off. They were absolutely wetting themselves. I was laughing too but through gritted teeth with an internal rage burning fiercely. Why laugh in that moment Hannah? Why not shut that kind of shit down? Well, the harsh reality is because I felt powerless. I was starting out and I was worried whether my success would be jeopardised, or whether I’d be branded as someone with no sense of humour who can’t take a joke. 

And I began to blame myself for every situation like this. My mind always racing. Was I too flirty? Was I too keen? Have I made a mockery out of myself in front of everyone? I felt like I had been reduced to nothing but their perception of me. This 19 year-old girl standing in front of them had morphed into somebody naive and impressionable. I was not the person I know I am. I’m somebody who, regardless of my gender, wants to be seen as a professional because of my admiration for storytellers who can make a film as if it is  cut from their soul. And I was pissed off about my willingness to compromise.  Following these uncomfortable encounters, I would smile less, double-check everything I said, fear stepping onto a set. Once I even buttoned up my shirt to the top in case it was the motivating factor behind the offensive questions. 

But here’s the thing, it’s not my fault at all. It’s theirs. They are the ones being un-professional, but it shocked me how quickly I began to tell myself it was me in the wrong. I wasn’t too keen, flirty or friendly. I was excited, working hard, trying to make a name for myself, learning as much as I could and meeting as many people as I could. Every experience made me aware of the world’s perception of me as an individual. Don’t get me wrong, there are fantastic people in this industry who couldn’t care less about my gender and who I’m grateful to know, but not clearly not everyone. And I don’t want another woman, trying to make a name for herself in any form of industry, to think that this is okay. It’s not. You are a professional working woman and should be treated as such. You’re worth should not be determined by your appearance, or your age, or your gender. You should be taken seriously. And I appreciate a man’s attention don’t get me wrong. But also, I’m here to start my career, not find myself a man, so the attention can wait outside the heavily glued-shut door. 

So, if you are like me and about to embark into the world of work and you ever face this or have already had the pleasure, know that you’re not alone. You’re most definitely not alone. Watch out for subtleties, know when things go too far, and the number one rule is never blame yourself. Ever. So, what’s my next step? Well, I know that whilst writing this I have been using the past tense a little too often: “I was gaining contacts”. “I was getting job offers”. “I was going to events”. But this isn’t the case. I’m only beginning. See, I let the words of others get under my skin and way me down so that I felt my career aspirations were impossible to achieve under my terms, all because of my XX chromosomal make-up. But now I look towards the women who are kicking ass every day in the workplace and remind myself that if they can do it, I can do it too, and that silence is not an option. And that’s you included. So, I’m still gaining contacts. I’m still going to events. I’m still constantly thinking of new ideas. I am beginning my career. And this time sexism is the last thing that will stop me. 

Hannah Read

(currently reading: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg).