“I’ve been undermined, harassed, and disregarded…but I’ve also been championed, mentored, and supported”

8 March 2022

International Women’s Day 2022 is focusing on breaking the bias. We spoke to Bectu members Jody Kelly, Miriam Wolanski, Sarah Everson and Heather Knott about their experiences working in traditionally male-dominated roles, advice for women in the sector and why being a union member is so important for women in the creative industries.

Tell us a bit about your role

Jody: As a theatre follow spot operator I operate a beam light from a wobbly platform, rigged below the flyfloor, above the stage with a lovely view of the actors’ heads.

Miriam: I cover a variety of roles in live events. I am a rigger, performer and production manager.

Sarah: I am a technician at the Welsh National Opera supporting the youth and community projects. My role is extremely varied from planning the technical requirements, doing the lighting, sound and AV. I am also a Bectu rep.

Heather: I’m a theatre sound operator, primarily for large-scale musicals. I work with the other members of my department to try to consistently replicate the sound design of a show at every performance.

How did you get into the industry?

Jody:  My parents sacrificed the family holiday to send me to a residential performance summer school for a week. I didn’t enjoy it on the first day but ended up helping to turn the hall into a theatre and found out about all these backstage roles. I ended up operating the lights and stage managing the final performance at the end of the week. I then got involved with a small local company that provided lighting and sound to local amateur theatre and school productions and I really got the bug.

Miriam:  I opened a circus/performance arts school back in 2003 and from there I began performing for theatre groups and outdoor festivals mostly.

Sarah: I love music and wanted to use that love in a practical way. I found the course ‘Music Technology’ which helped my confidence in branching into the creative industries. After freelance work doing sound designs and stage management for a year I found my interest moving towards technical theatre and was accepted for a technical apprenticeship at Wales Millennium Centre. Since this apprenticeship I have worked in theatre, contemporary dance, TV and live events giving technical support.

Heather: I’ve loved and been heavily involved in theatre and music since I was a child. After I graduated from an unrelated degree, I enrolled on London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art’s Stage Management and Technical Theatre course. I then worked in a few Fringe venues, producing houses, and on a children’s theatre tour. Less than a year after graduating, I got lucky. Jersey Boys hired me as their No.3. Since then, I’ve slowly worked my way up the job roles within sound departments in the West End and on tour.

What advice would you have for women entering similar roles to you?

Jody: Don’t be put off that it’s a traditionally male environment. Most jobs are not about brute strength but skill and experience.

Miriam: It can be daunting when you are first establishing yourself in a male dominated environment so look for support and don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.

Sarah: Believe in your ability and don’t doubt yourself in the workplace. Talk to colleagues about any issues you face in an open way, they may not know how you are feeling and being treated, and they may have had similar experiences to you.

Heather:  It can be intimidating to be the only woman among a warehouse full of production sound engineers. This happens less in the West End now, but we’re still very much a minority on the touring circuit. The temptation is to push yourself harder than you should – physically, mentally – because you don’t want to show any weakness. But in the long run, this will only do you harm.

What has been your experience as a woman in the creative industries?

Jody: I tend to not notice that I have often been the only female in teams until it is pointed out. Pre-pandemic it really felt like there was a more balanced mixture of people working backstage but coming back it worries me how many women have left the industry and the workforce is generally less diverse.

Miriam: Overall my experience has been very positive. I have experienced on a few occasions stereotypes related to sexism. Clear communication and talking openly about it helps. My love for what I do and the positives far outshine the negatives. The industry is constantly evolving and it is really exciting to be a part of that but to also help in driving change.

Sarah: Working in various industries has been a challenge and each had its differences. To being the only woman and not having simple facilities like women’s toilets or having to prove I am physically able to do my job. However, helping to improve it and being good at what I do keeps me wanting to achieve more. The industry has improved and is constantly moving forward in a positive direction, and I am proud to be part of that.

Heather: My experience as a woman in the creative industries has been a positive one on the whole. I’ve been undermined, harassed, and disregarded more times than I can count. But I’ve also been championed, mentored, and supported. In many ways, the creative industries are far more inclusive than most other areas of society in my experience.

Finally, why do you think  it’s important for women to be part of a union?

Jody: Coming back post-pandemic it’s hard for everyone and we need to be strong together.

Miriam: The union offers a lot of support but also lots of opportunities to grow and learn within the industry. I am an active member within the Scottish Live Events Network branch with Bectu and any time assistance has been needed it has been given quickly and by supportive people.

Sarah: Being part of a union and becoming more involved as a rep has improved my confidence and life skills such as negotiations and public speaking. I’m really passionate about making a positive change for people and being there to support them.

Heather: Having a union to turn to for answers, guidance or support has been hugely valuable to me throughout my career. As an industry, If we were all to negotiate individual contract terms on a dog-eat-dog basis, there would simply be a race to the bottom. Having the framework of the UK Theatres/Bectu or Society of London Theatres/Bectu agreements benefits us all. It helps us to claw back some sort of work/life balance in an industry that prides itself on its “show must go on” mentality.