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Women in AV: Never give up, and always wash your hands

To mark International Women's Day on March 8 – and featured in the latest edition of Installation – Sarah Edwards highlights the environment for females in the pro AV sector

The semi-pause that settled across most of the AV trades over the past year as a result of the pandemic has perhaps given us all more time to reflect upon where our industry is heading – not just in terms of technology and AV’s growing relevance, but also diversity in all of its forms. In the first of our features on the subject, Sarah Edwards speaks to some of the leading female lights in AV to gauge their thoughts on barriers to entry, glass ceilings and hand washing.

A pathway to awareness

The idea that any sector of work is ‘off limits’ for women is rightfully an idea that belongs in the past, yet with so few visible women in the AV industry it certainly appears that gender disparity still exists in 2021.

With ‘International Women’s Day’ taking place on March 8, this feature is well timed. This annual global celebration gives us a chance to honour past fights for equality but also look to the future at what more can be done to diversify our society and, of course, our workplaces.

It’s a sad truth that most women have and will continue to face some level of adversity in their working lives. Huge strides have been made so far, but it is clear that although the glass ceiling may not be as visible as it was twenty years ago it will take a collective effort from each and every one of us to shatter it entirely.

I spoke with several successful women in AV to learn about their experiences in our industry and whether there remains a ‘glass ceiling’ holding them back from progressing in what is still visibly a male dominated sector.

“How can we expect to attract anyone, let alone women into our industry?” asks Rachael Hamilton, of I AM RACHAEL, a dedicated business consultancy for the AV industry. “For starters, no one outside the industry knows what the AV industry is. Most people working in AV cannot [even] define what AV means.”

The oft reported industry wide skills shortage perhaps goes some way to explaining why people, irrespective of gender, are unaware of all the opportunities out there in the sector. “There are a few businesses out there working on this, but they are doing this in silos.” Hamilton adds. 

There has indeed been an increase in women qualifying with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) qualifications, but here lies an issue: once qualified, the path into AV lacks a certain amount of clarity. “There’s no awareness or career paths to bring them through,” says Hamilton, who feels so passionately about this issue she is planning to embark upon outreach work to help the cause. 

Core subjects

UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) data shows that year-on-year, core STEM subjects have seen an increase of around 1,000 female students, showing that efforts to encourage women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields has been somewhat successful. Government data also shows there are now one million women working in core STEM occupations – promising figures, but there is more work to be done in creating awareness for all those opportunities out there.

“AV isn’t necessarily a clear career path for anyone, male or female,” explains Toni Moss, owner and managing director at CDEC Limited. “Many people tend to fall into it, often from IT – which is also a more traditionally male industry.”

Moss believes that there is a need for highlighting from a much earlier age that AV is an exciting and inclusive career path, and indeed a number of initiatives have been developed in recent years to encourage people into the industry. “If you’re not sure where you fit, consider training and certification – there are a number of degree courses in AV which will introduce you to many aspects of the industry and then allow you to focus in on your areas of interest,” she adds.

Similarly feeling her way into the unknown, Carys Green, sales account manager at Pioneer and AVIXA Women’s Council Leader UK, speaks about her first foray into this sector some 16 years ago: “I had no idea what AV was or even what a distributor was but I got the job, learned fast and immediately fell in love with the buzz and fast pace of working in the AV industry.”

Ironically, the same undefinable nature of AV is what keeps things interesting. “AV is ever evolving, and I really like that because no two weeks, months or years are ever the same” explains Green. She goes on to praise the great network of support there is out there, in the form of colleagues and suppliers. “Thankfully the positive experiences have been many, and I am most grateful for the amazing people I have met and the friends I have made.”

Changing times

A seismic shift in how women are perceived in society continues to evolve with the help of global movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp and more specifically to workplace diversity, the 30% Club. This campaign aims to increase gender diversity at board and senior management level, with presence in multiple countries/regions around the world. The 30% Club believes that having women in leadership roles could add trillions to the global economy, above average profitability and reduced incidence of fraud, insider trading and unethical practice.

It’s certainly encouraging to see big businesses moving with the times, and AV is part of this positive shift. Things have moved on from where they were twenty years ago, but that’s not to say things are perfect.

“I still have people that will look over my shoulder to see if there is a guy coming to help me,” says Amanda Wildman, owner of Trumedia and member of the CEDIA board of directors. “I used to get really bent out of shape about it, but now I address it with humour and that usually helps.”  Working out in the field, she has previously been asked if ‘she knows what she is doing’ and her best response is this: “I will grab the reciprocating saw and pull the trigger on it and act a little spooked and then respond with ‘I’m not sure, but wish me luck!’ Then I just watch their face and chuckle a little.”

Wildman is an advocate for helping women involved in AV, inviting them to join committees and working groups as much as possible. “Now that I’m here though and more confident, I think it’s important for me to share my story and to encourage other women as I see them trying to learn and get involved.’

All the young dudes

It’s the visibility of women within the industry (or lack of) which can really put young women off. Toni Moss explains: “Women are still few and far between in leadership roles comparatively speaking, and this creates the further problem of women leaving the industry because they’re not able to progress in the way they would expect.”

This feeling of not belonging is re-iterated when attending events awash with predominantly male faces, especially trade shows – a great opportunity to connect/network with peers and potential clients, but their lack of diversity is notable.

“I’ve heard horrendous stories,” says Hamilton. “Visiting trade shows you’d be walking through a sea of trolly dollies, the various ‘boys only’ clubs and the lack of women at any event.” Fortunately, this example is from 14 years ago, when she first started in the industry, and things are getting dramatically better. “It has vastly improved. There are more women than you think out there working in operations, service, sales and technical jobs, they just aren’t self-publicising.”

Diversity and expansion

Looking to the future, we know the industry is growing and perhaps in ways we never expected prior to the pandemic, and with this expansion of the industry comes more opportunities for women.

When Petra Van Meeuwen, director of marketing and public relations at Technological Innovations Group (TIG) entered the industry 20 years ago, and describes the setting as “one dimensional and hugely dominated by men”. Since then, so much has changed, and the industry wide expansion has created more work for everybody.

Indeed, Meeuwen was lucky to have not personally faced any barriers when it came to her career. “Irrespective of whether you were male or female, hard work, drive and passion seemed to be the best ingredients to break down any barriers,” she says, remaining positive when looking to the future: “There are plenty of colourful, engaging and exciting opportunities to come.”

Any sector where women are less visible is bound to create its own set of unique challenges, and oftentimes women feel the need to go above and beyond to prove their worth. Emma Bigg, AV designer and strategist (and, it should be said, owner!) at Octavius RE Ltd came into AV from live events audio and was hit with initial scepticism around her experience.

“One of the most difficult challenges was getting people to trust my judgement and abilities”, she says, and the time she was one of the few women in a technical design role. “In most cases I just had to show that I knew what I was talking about and could collaborate with other disciplines to deliver a project.”

Facing similar negativity early on in her career, Carys Green is turning these negatives around: “I’ve certainly learnt from those experiences and they’ve made me stronger and more resilient as a result.” 

Mentor power

There’s a strong sense of women supporting other women within AV, especially building a sense of community with each other. A useful resource mentioned by almost everybody I spoke with was mentoring. Rachael Hamilton puts her career, knowledge and connections down to a handful of people in the industry, and has words of advice for any new starters: “Stay true to yourself and be brave. Don’t pretend you’re something you’re not, and certainly ask for help when you don’t know. You need to gain the trust and respect of not just men, of anyone in the industry – being honest and human will do this.”

Supporting peers in her own way, Hamilton has just been elected for the AVIXA Women’s Council UK committee. “This will be something we will be working on to help women progress their careers in AV”.

For young women coming into the industry, being able to see and learn from women in senior roles is essential. Toni Moss, another advocate of the mentoring approach says: “It’s great to see women becoming more visible in the industry and in many cases working together to offer support and mentorship.” There are communities and associations out there are specifically in place to help bring industry professionals together. “I’ve found AV to be very welcoming and the people more than willing to share their expertise, so utilise that valuable resource”. 

Communities of course help bring people together but in the current climate, we have been more apart than ever. Never before has technology been so instrumental in our day to day lives, from conference calls spanning the globe, to Zoom quizzes in living rooms to liven up yet another Friday in lockdown.
Carys Green offers some positivity for the world post Covid-19: “No matter how bad the news on the TV, this IS a temporary thing albeit it has shaken our industry and indeed our world to its core, but things will get better soon.”

Unlocking Covid

This is a point that certainly resonates within the UK, following the recent Government ‘roadmap’ guidelines detailing our eventual way out of lockdown, and hopefully back to some semblance of normality. 

“It may well be that our world after Covid-19 will be different, but what is certain is that there are exciting times ahead as our industry gets to play a massive part in shaping and building the world after,” says Green. She offers possibly the most succinct piece of advice we’ve heard to date with regard to the not only the pandemic, but also for women striving to succeed in AV – which is more like a mantra for the times we live in: “Never give up, and always wash your hands.”

For almost a year now, our working lives have been forced to change. Most of our offices have been pushed into our homes, whether we like it or not. The sophisticated balancing act of work/home schooling (more often than not, mothers) and trying to remain positive during a global pandemic are just a few of plates that we are trying to keep perpetually spinning.

With all of this in mind, what advice can these women in AV offer to new starters? Hamilton urges the importance of women joining groups, and also contacting magazines to offer insightful contributions: “Don’t lean in, jump in! See what articles you can contribute to or panels to speak on – remember if you can see it you can be it.”

Similarly, Wildman emphasises the need for women to be seen and heard. “It’s easy to rattle off the names of men that have had impact in our industry…. Everyone can recognise Steve Jobs, but who knows who Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson? When these names begin to be better known and others are added to the list, we will have broken through, but it will take all of us working together as a team to accomplish this.”

Positive vibes

Clearly more work to be done then, but overall the women we spoke to for this feature were positive about the AV industry as a whole and women’s role within it today and in the future. The first barrier to entry in AV appears to be actually knowing that the industry exists in the first place, but it’s good to hear that those women who have already found a home in AV only see a glass ceiling of their own making, rather than a barrier to progression.

“If you’ve got the right skill set and the right attitude I don’t think there is a glass ceiling to what you can achieve,” Wildman explains, and this positive attitude should be a fillip to all those women who are working AV and those who will – with the right encouragement – find AV very soon.

Mentor programme

It was certainly very encouraging in late February to see women’s advocacy group Rise, which operates in AV’s peer broadcast industry, launching its Rise Up UTC Mentoring Programme for young women aged 16 to 18 years in partnership with five University Technical Colleges (UTCs). The programme, which is government funded and will focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) subjects, is set to support a total of 23 young women in the UK by providing a “range of technical and support-orientated initiatives, including training programmes and industry networking with virtual and face-to-face mentoring.”   

This is great, and it’s good news for AV too. As Samantha Ventura, senior vice president, education and training at CEDIA, explained in our February issue, most experts on the topic of women in STEM agree that the support for bringing more young women into our industry and other STEM fields has grown in “leaps and bounds” from even a decade ago.

“Millions of dollars globally are given each year to women seeking education in one of the areas of STEM,” Ventura notes. “And according to the US Department of Labor, in 2016 $1.9 million became available in grants for Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO), and all of these efforts are helping.”

However, Ventura goes on to note the following: “To close the gap more quickly, supporting as much diversity and representation in all STEM fields, skilled trades, and specifically our industry, there is a need for seasoned professionals and organisations already successfully immersed in their fields, to reach out and offer a welcoming hand and thoughtful support to those not fairly represented as yet.”

Where there’s a will…

To repeat, clearly more work needs to be done, although the will to bring more women into the AV industry certainly seems to exist in spades.

As Ventura states: “Supporting more women in… AV will only benefit our collective future, in both large and small businesses, enhancing the overall elevation of the skilled trades in general.”

And to give the last word to Green, who catches the women-in-AV and Covid-19 zeitgeist perfectly: “Never give up and always wash your hands.”