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Production manager Heather Doole: Women in technical theatre need allies, here’s what to do

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I love working in technical theatre and I feel lucky to be part of this knowledgeable and supportive community. But I don’t love being a woman in technical theatre.

Despite the great majority of men, there are male technicians who regularly question my competence based on nothing but my gender and sometimes feel it’s appropriate in the workplace to bring up how I look.

Recently, I had a run-in with a technician who did both. After tweeting my anger, many of my female colleagues, as expected, responded with recognition. Hearteningly, there was also a wave of outrage from male technicians who had not realised how common this is.

It may feel like an uphill battle sometimes, but cultures can change and discovering more allies means change is maybe closer than I thought. Men who actively want to support their female colleagues make a huge impact, so here are some tips.

If a woman is in charge, but all the questions are directed at you – redirect them to her. Most female production managers and stage managers have a story of turning up with a male cast member or junior technician and all queries being directed to them. It may feel helpful to answer any question you can, but it reinforces the gender bias. Send it back.

Think about your language. There’s a tradition of referring to “stage boys” and “getting another man on this”. This language creates an expectation of who these people should be. Try ‘team’ or ‘folk’ for groups, and ‘body’ or ‘being’ for generic individuals. And if a woman is in charge? Try referring to her in ways that quietly support her authority such as “Guv” or “Boss”.

Don’t comment on appearances at work. Not commenting on people you work with is obvious, but it goes further than that. Overhearing discussions about other women’s bodies makes these spaces feel as though you’re a visitor in someone else’s world, rather than a valuable contributor in your own.

Respond to sexist comments as though they’re aimed at you. I once unloaded a van with a male colleague and the driver repeatedly tried to take things off me, worrying that I couldn’t manage. My colleague handed the driver what he was holding saying: “Thanks, you’re right – this is heavy.” That small act was one of support and allowed me to get on with my job.

Call it out. In one fit-up, a crew was discussing its female manager being a nightmare when another interrupted, pointing out that she had it harder than her male colleagues. They all agreed. It may have fallen to me to call it out, but ultimately it was a relief that others felt the same as I did.

Finally, most importantly, respect the people you work with and listen to them. If someone is of a different gender, ethnicity or social background they may not feel as confident raising their voice – so you must listen harder. If they are not speaking up, encourage them and give them space to be heard.

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