I was sitting in the coffee shop, watching people walk by on this nice sunny day in 2009. A girl I recognized from the sound design labs walked by.
A male student I also recognized from the sound design lab sat nearby. As the girl passed the window, the guy commented to his friend on what a know-it-all this girl was. In his mind she was kind of aggressive and thought she was more talented than she actually was.
I felt offended for her. She was one of the better engineers in my mind. Not just one of the better female audio engineers, because I think dividing our ‘bests’ by gender is only counterproductive. She was one of the better audio engineers out of the lot, from what I could see.
On the flip side, another girl in the program was a good engineer, but not so much with the sound design. I never heard a guy complain about her entitlement or quality, like the one girl who had passed me in the coffee shop. The girl from the coffee shop was also pretty girly and feminine, a musician, the list goes on. The second girl, not so much.
I couldn’t help but think of this comparison when reading Amy Nguyen’s article ‘I Need Terrible Female Engineers’, posted on Medium on August 5. The crux of the article pointed to this statement: “I resent that we keep perpetuating this idea that women in tech are good at everything because we shouldn’t have to be any better than anyone else to belong in this field. We belong in this field because we’re people who deserve a shot, not because we are geniuses.”
This reminded me of the female audio engineer scenario because, hearing this guy judge the one girl in such a way made me think the following: if you’re feminine, an engineer, and assertive then you do not deserve your title. If you’re an engineer, female but not very feminine…eh, ok. That was fine.
Of course, it was not so black and white. This guy was much more judgmental and crotchety than my other peers. I found all the guys in the department to be great, and my professor was so great he was my senior project advisor. There. There is my disclaimer.
Nguyen’s article, however, brought up an instability that (correct me if I’m wrong) I think a lot of females feel in a male-dominated field. We may feel that we have to be better than average. Because if we’re not knocking socks off, we could be judged as a girl who sucks at her job or doesn’t know what she is doing.
There was a guy in my sound design class who didn’t put much effort into our first project. We took a short clip and added the sound to it. Pretty basic. Lots of the clips included the use of the Doppler effect. This particular guy’s clip was nearly silent. After he presented it, my professor pressed him as to why we just watched 30 seconds of silence in a sound design class. The guy defended his project by saying that he decided to style the piece in such a way that you were far away from the scene, so you didn’t hear much of what you were watching. Apparently, we were also watching the scene from an anechoic chamber.
While my professor did not buy it, I felt that half of my peers did. Really, I thought. This guy basically forgot to do his project and tried to improvise a postmodern minimalist approach… if I had done that, everyone would think I’m an idiot!
But, as Nguyen points out, there is a grand mix of talent in any field, and everyone deserves a shot. There will always be that guy whose sound design project is 30 seconds of silence. It seems we are ok with that. But I don’t think we’re ok with being that lazy at a job as a woman.
Don’t get me wrong. I know tons of women who are great in male-dominated fields, and men who are wonderful in female-dominated fields. My kindergarten teacher was wonderful, though that is typically seen as a woman’s job. He was spectacular. Perhaps he was ridiculed by some peers for singing songs and playing with bubbles with five-year-olds all day, and that’s not fair.
My aunt is a pretty kick-butt engineer, and my mom worked in government communications when she was younger than I am. Sadly, my mom did end up having a gun pointed at her, because she was not recognized by a new security employee, and was only seen as a female on site with hippie hair.
But I digress. Are women setting this standard for other women, or are we all? Are we harder on women in these fields? Take a look at politics, for example. There is a feeling, not one that everyone agrees on, that we brand a female politician into two categories: airhead or shrew. Not very kind or fair right there.
If we can’t accept all talent levels of women (or men) then, first of all, we’re pretty much cutting out a huge chunk of people in the midst of learning, and shutting them out from getting involved and, as a result, better. We’re also judging them outside of their job. I admit that I have gone into job interviews where I feel like I am being judged on my looks or how trendy I am, instead of the resume in front of me. I get worried when my allergies act up and I have some awesome red blotchiness going on, and I don’t care so much because it doesn’t have anything to do with how well I will perform my job function, but OH DEAR, what if the person interviewing me takes points off because I look like I got in a fight with Poison Ivy. You know, the plant or Dr. Lillian herself.
I was the only woman in the studio at one of my previous roles. When I was given the tour of the office space, I heard a voice say, “gasp! A woman.” Well, that made me hyper-aware. I didn’t consider it an issue, though, other than constantly being afraid that someone wouldn’t give me constructive criticism, for fear that I would take it the wrong way. When our project was cancelled and we were laid off, I had to discuss with HR the fact that it was not because I was the only female. Of course! We were all laid off. But I see how someone could have been malicious and make a cry for sexism.
It happens in music, too. Sometimes when I say that I don’t enjoy the White Stripes, and don’t particularly enjoy Meg White’s drumming, I hear some say “How could you say that as a fellow female drummer?”. Well, heck, I’m not Stewart Copeland, but I don’t enjoy her drumming from that album…can we be ok with that? I don’t enjoy Jack White on there either, and I’m ok with that. I don’t have to like Meg White’s drumming just because we share the same instrument. I love dinosaurs, and I enjoy PBS, but that doesn’t equate to me watching Barney and Friends.
I feel that we, as women, get so caught up in a ‘go girl’ mentality, that sometimes we don’t just let ourselves… be. Nobody is going to be the best at everything. You can be darned if you do, and darned if you don’t. You can be a girly engineer, and nobody should hold that against you, or vice versa.
I think a lot of women start to feel nervous in these fields for many reasons. She may worry that she was chosen for the job for diversity reasons, and not her skills. She may worry that she shouldn’t be too girly, too geeky, or too bossy. She may worry that she is assumed to be unqualified.
To this I say: do you like what you do? Can you do it?
Boom. End of discussion. And enjoy everyone’s differences while we’re at it. It’s a beautiful thing.