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“If she can see me, she can be me”: Women in AV special report

As it was International Women's Day this week, we look back on Sarah Edward's discussions with some of the women who made the cut for last year’s Pro AV Watch List, with contributors discussing representation, glass ceilings and what steps we can all make for a better and more inclusive future for the AV industry

Last year’s Pro AV Watch List (unveiled in our September 2022 edition) celebrated a 25-strong mix of AV influencers in 2022 – the List’s sophomore year – almost half of whom were female. With the best gender representation for a Watch List, or its predecessor, the Pro AV Power 20, to date, Installation decided to talk to some of the inspiring women from the shortlist to discuss industry equity and what the future of AV looks like to them.

It’s fair to say that much like a small town in the countryside, pretty much everybody knows everybody – or knows of everybody – within the AV industry. It’s no surprise therefore that the women Installation spoke with all knew of one another, personally or by reputation, and were pleased to be recognised – in equal measure – alongside their male counterparts.

Alesia Hendley, business development representative at Audinate, describes her “pure joy” at being listed among her valued peers: “My first reaction was pure excitement… I have never seen a list in this space with so many women; yet, women of colour,” she says. “There are a lot of women in AV, and I am happy to see women of all ages, races, and experiences gain proper recognition.”

Alesia Hendley, business development representative at Audinate, describes her “pure joy” at making this year’s list

Hendley is an AV professional who found her passion at a young age as a sound engineer with her father’s church, although without a degree she has felt the challenges of entering the AV industry from early on: “Degree vs experience. Experience vs degree. That’s a barrier within itself,” she says. “I had to do grunt work for years before I could touch a soundboard, but men would come right in and have greater opportunities sooner.

“After a while, you realise it is all a part of the game. Constantly proving what you can do and working overtime to try and do it better than anyone else, man or woman. Part of the reason I do what I do is to try and create the change I’d like to see in this industry.”

In support of industry-wide equity, the AVIXA Women’s council has formed a global community of people committed to supporting and empowering women who work in the technology and AV industry. Beky Cann, director of global PR at Peerless-AV, was recently nominated to the UK branch of the council, and speaks highly of its resources that bring like-minded women together.

“The AVIXA Women’s Council UK has hosted coffee mornings and webinars on these very topics,” says Cann. “This helps to support and empower women, as well as men, by sharing experiences and encouraging them to approach their daily tasks in a more positive way.”

Speaking candidly about her own experiences entering the AV industry, she claims her imposter syndrome was the biggest hurdle of all: “Many people suffer from imposter syndrome and self-limiting beliefs at some stage and I’ll admit that I’m no exception, but being recognised for a job you are passionate about is a big motivator and this is something we all have in common,” she says. “It’s great to see a [near] balanced gender ratio in the 2022 list and this is important for an industry that’s seeking to encourage the younger generation into AV roles out of university.”

Also, a member of the AVIXA Women’s Council, Iffat Chaudhry, bid manager at Involve Visual Collaboration, believes there to be no “singular fix” to creating more open and accessible pathways into the world of AV.

‘If you can see me, you can be me’, a simple mantra first coined by Pro AV Watch Lister Alexis La Broi

“There are definitely a lot more women in the industry, in roles outside of admin and sales than when I first joined,” she says. “I believe individual organisations must take responsibility for the part they play; how they market their opportunities, how they develop roles and share success stories relating to female/any minorities in their employ.”

Having “fallen into” the industry in 2005, Choudhry has not looked back and has since launched a podcast titled #WhatIff, a collection of no-nonsense conversations about diversity, inclusivity, and equity in the AV industry (available on YouTube) discussing topics such as disability representation, workplace diversity and how we can analyse and amend our own use of language to be more inclusive going forward.

“Many organisations within the industry are ‘family’ style; some run unfortunately like businesses from the 90s,” explains Choudhry. “So, the mentality doesn’t lend itself to developing any creativity into the organisational structure… forward thinking organisations are changing that mentality.”

Lainie Mataras, consultant, architect, design director at Planar, worked her way up from an administrative role to an experienced business development manager position where she is now. “Perhaps my ‘climb up the corporate ladder’ wasn’t as accelerated as I would have liked, but I am not disappointed in the least about what I have accomplished in my career,” she says.

“I never thought of any barriers 30 years ago, but looking back maybe the lack of women in middle management or the C-Suite should have concerned me. I think the barriers concerning that are definitely improving, but we still have a way to go.”

Mataras discusses the importance of content for video walls here.

Danielle Williams, business development manager, Audio Visual Material, believes AV is a great industry to work in and has been fortunate enough to work for a company that has allowed her to flourish and grow within her role. She admits to occasionally being met by surprise when discussing her technical job, mainly among family and friends.

“On the whole I have been lucky to have been able to mould my own role and have the same experiences as my male counterparts,” she says. “There were no barriers, apart from myself. Once I started to believe in me, the sky has been the limit.”

The AV industry is ever-changing, ever-evolving, as the need for new, more advanced tech becomes greater in professional environments and at home, and accelerated change has never been more evident than following the worst of Covid. As the industry diversifies, so must the pool of talent that employees draw from.

A simple mantra held by Hendley, and first coined by fellow Pro AV Watch Lister Alexis La Broi, articulates how many feel about representation in the workplace, or anywhere for that matter: ‘If you can see me, you can be me.’ “It’s one of the most profound statements that stick with me daily as I continue on my personal mission to bring new people into this industry,” says Henley. “I just want other women, especially women of colour to know they can be here too.”

Given statistics from Tech Nation suggest that still only 19 per cent of the tech workforce are women, the lack of visibility risks young women being put off completely; so the ‘if you can see me, you can be me’ mantra is clearly of huge importance.

The AV industry is taking some significant steps in attracting and recruiting new talent through more non-traditional methods, like the NSCA Education Foundation’s Ignite internship programme, which helps integrators attract the next generation of tech minds into the industry.

Another example of this is AVIXA’s mentorship programmes which offers its members ways in which to virtually network, seek advice through discussion, and engage further with people within the AV community.

Lainie Mataras worked her way up from an administrative role

Mataras agrees on the importance of mentorship, especially in terms of professional development: “Find mentors, make friends, and network,” she advises. “Introduce yourself to strangers at AV events, be social on social media and always continue your professional development; you are the creator of your destiny, not your employer.”

Agreeing with this sentiment, Cann believes networking is key in the AV industry. Her advice is to connect with as many people as possible, at different levels and business fields. “I’ve been at Peerless-AV for nearly eight years now and management has supported me to develop as a global ambassador for the company,” she says. “My mentor was a career driven woman in a leadership role who always encouraged me and inspired me to progress.”

If we are striving for fair and equal representation in the workplace, it would be remiss not to address the topic of salary. In the UK, the gender pay gap currently stands at 8.3 per cent when you compare male and female full-time workers. The latest data also highlighted that the highest earning male employees still earned significantly more than the equivalent female employee.

Over the years, there has been increased pressure for employers to be open about salary which has resulted in legislation such as the ‘New York City pay transparency law’. With an aim to help alleviate gender-based wage disparities, this US law (which came into force in May 2022) requires employers to include a salary range in all job postings. In Norway, all citizens’ earnings are publicly available for anyone to see; a system has been functioning since the early 1800s!

There are currently no equivalent laws in the UK that force businesses to share any salary details to its employees. However, there is a law that requires qualifying businesses to report their gender pay gap.

In addition, gender is one strand of six “protected characteristics” held by The Equality Act of 2010, which refers to all of the existing discrimination strands: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. This Act provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society for us all.

Transparency in pay has shown clear benefits for the recruitment process; organisations committed to pay equity are often more appealing to top talent, and pay transparency is more likely to attract and retain a more diverse workforce.

Beky Cann, director of global PR at Peerless-AV, speaks highly of AVIXA’s resources to bring like-minded women together

“Yes, it’s proven women don’t get paid the same, and aren’t treated equally in the AV industry still, the data proves it,” states Hendley. “When I see a woman smashing the glass ceiling, I applaud her!”

There is a need for solidarity if we are to strive forwards with the rights of women and minorities in the workplace and it’s humbling to see the women selected for the Pro AV Watch List of 2022 celebrating each others recognition in an industry that is slowly changing.

“I was honoured to be included in that list,” says Mataras. “So many amazing women at various levels in their career. I know most of them but look forward to meeting the ones I don’t.”

Of course, it’s wonderful to see so many women recognised for their talents across all levels of the AV industry in Installation’s annual celebration of talent, but the bigger picture for representation has, realistically, only just begun.

“Yes, it’s important to champion females,” says Chaudhry. “But for me the added dimension of having some fellow people of colour celebrated was a greater step forward in our collective aim for diversity; if that’s what we truly want to achieve.”

The AV industry – like most other walks of life – still has work to do in this regard, of course, but it’s good to see that we are at least making baby steps in the right direction, with Installation’s Pro AV Watch List hopefully contributing to raising the diversity bar for women and people of colour.

Roll on next year!