The gender gap isn’t as huge as it once was, but it’s nowhere near closed, according to speakers at an NAB 2018 panel dedicated to women working in production and post-production.
The discussion, organized by StudioDaily, considered the state of professional opportunities for women in all corners of the media industry. Women have become more visible than ever as power players and role models in the industry, but they still have a long way to go before reaching parity with their male counterparts, panelists said.
Topics covered during the 75-minute session included hiring practices, career strategies, and the difficulty women face in efforts to prove their competence, repeatedly, to their male colleagues. “I’m a freelancer from show to show to show,” said post producer Elicia Bessette. “And I find that, every time I go to a new show, even though I’m doing the exact same job I’ve done for 12 years, I have to re-prove myself to the new crew.”
“I think women have to work extra hard just to break even, but we’re very good at what we do,” said camera operator Deena Sheldon. “We don’t phone it in. We will step up when asked.”
Speakers on the panel included Bessette, currently co-producer on the Starz hit Outlander; Elisabetta Cartoni, president & CEO of Cartoni; Anna Maria Hall, VP and head of music licensing sales at Killer Tracks; Hillary Lewis, editor at Live Nation; Payton List, workflow producer at Sim Digital; and Sheldon, camera operator on 11 Super Bowls, seven inaugurations and countless more sporting and other special events, as well as former co-VP of sports & entertainment for the Cameron | Pace Group. Read on for an overview of the discussion, or watch the video clips for highlights.
The conversation opened with each panelist recounting her first job in the industry, and her first big break. As you might expect, their experiences varied widely.
With a master’s degree in philosophy, Elisabetta Cartoni originally saw herself becoming a teacher. But when her father, Guido Cartoni, needed her help at the family company, Cartoni, she heeded his call. “His company was growing and needed an international salesperson,” she said. “In the beginning I was kind of forced in. But then I started to have fun.”
She remembered the challenge of being a young woman working in the international business world. On her first trip to Japan she presented, by herself, to a room full of perhaps 80 men. It wasn’t easy, though she recalled that the men made an effort to treat her gently, as they might any newcomer on the scene. “But, of course, they are waiting for you to do the wrong thing or make a mistake,” she said. “If you prove that you know what you are talking about, that you know your limits as well as your strengths, then they start respecting you. As soon as you establish that kind of relation, it becomes easier.”
Anna Maria Hall, VP and head of music licensing sales at Killer Tracks, described a career path that ended up nowhere near where it had started. She had originally hoped to break into film production, but became frustrated at the barriers to entry and took a job at AT&T Mobility instead. That corporate path gave her the experience she would need to make a lateral move into the entertainment industry later in her career.
“I was a salesperson, and then I went all the way up to vice president within 12 years,” she said. “At the end of my career at AT&T I took a position that stepped out of my comfort zone, and I ended up getting laid off when there was a restructure. I sat back and said, ‘What do I really want to do?’ And I ended up getting this position [at Killer Tracks] at the vice president level. I’ve been there for nine years and it’s really a dream come true.”
Hillary Lewis works at Live Nation, where she creates localized commercial content for live concert tours. She said she got her first jobs through a combination of networking and establishing herself on non-paying gigs. “I’m from Indianapolis, and it’s a very small market,” Lewis explained. “It’s hard to get opportunities, and when you do, sometimes they’re only half-paid and sometimes you have to work for free. So I did it, and that’s what got my foot in the door.”
Payton List, workflow producer at Sim Digital, said filmmaking ran in her family — her mother was a professor and documentary filmmaker — but she considered being a doctor before settling into the industry. Like Lewis, she learned some of the ropes on unpaid jobs, transitioning from production to post, and then climbing the ladder by proving her capabilities at Sim Digital. “I highly recommend staying in touch with your classmates,” she said. “That’s a huge way to get your foot in the door — working your way up with people you know.”
Always Be Prepared, Always Be Ready
“My dad was an athlete and my mom was a reporter, so that was in the house,” said DP and camera operator Deena Sheldon, recounting her early decision to switch her studies at Boston University from physical therapy to broadcast and film. She got her start — and a practical education — at WSBK-TV, where she spent a year on camera and editing. From there she went to work running the dugout camera for the Red Sox. After another stint as a lifeguard, she ended up at NBC, where she ran cameras pointing at Phil Donahue, Barbara Walters, David Letterman, and the like. She got her next sports gig at CBS because she was able to fly out on a day’s notice to cover a football game after the regular operator was injured with a broken leg.
“My father always said to me, ‘Always be prepared, always be ready,'” she said, recalling her first job shooting football. “I knew that studying numbers and being fast was something I could bring to the table. So before every game, I memorized all the numbers. I memorized 180 guys on the field. I knew who was second string and third string. I’m gonna know, if the second string comes out, who’s coming in. I’m gonna know where the GM is sitting who signed him, and the owner who’s paying him, and his family.
“All this industry is, is about your work ethics and your reputation. If you’re in a package and the director and producer like you, hopefully you’ll get a call back. You’re only as good as your last focus, so you’re always on your toes because someone behind you wants your job.”
In a tale of thwarted ambition, Elicia Bessette revealed that she was knocked out of the running to be an astronaut when her eyesight kept her out of the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar. Instead, she studied theatrical production design at Tulane, became fascinated with motion pictures and filmmaking technology, transferred to NYU and eventually moved to L.A. to be closer to the business. As luck would have it, her first roommate had a friend who was post coordinator on Gilmore Girls, a connection that got her a job as PA — not her ideal choice, but one that eventually allowed her to move into the role of post coordinator.
“I didn’t run the post department, but I had the passion to run it — and I thought I could, even at that stage,” Bessette said. “Line producer Carolyn James and Steven Bochco, who just recently passed, gave me a shot at raising the bar to run post with no experience. It was the best experience of my life — a lot of tears, learning from scratch, sink or swim. But it was my first big break. And I really appreciated it.”
Getting Hired and Earning Promotions
Asked about things bosses and others do, without thinking, that make working conditions for women more difficult, panel members said men seem to get the benefit of the doubt more often than women. As one example, Lewis said she had been sitting in on other panels at NAB and was intrigued by an observation that women are often judged by the projects they have completed, where men are often judged on the potential that they seem to have.
Along those lines, Hall encouraged women to be bold when it comes to applying for jobs, even if their experience doesn’t completely match the skill set required. Men, she said, will have no compunctions about getting in line for positions even if they have few qualifications. “I hire a lot of people,” she said, “and I don’t always hire the person who has exactly, A-Z, what’s in the job description.”
Hall also recounted a story about a supervisor reacting in disbelief when she voiced her desire to climb from sales into management — although after she finally did get the job, he said she was the best hire he ever made. List agreed that women can face unfair opposition when trying to earn new responsibilities. “It always feels like an uphill battle when trying to get promoted,” she said. “I feel like you have to work twice as hard to prove that you’re able to handle the same thing your male co-workers can handle.”
Even apparently innocuous aspects of office life can contribute, if inadvertently, to marginalizing women’s roles. “A lot of times we get put in charge of things like planning office parties, buying birthday cards or buying treats and cookies for holidays,” Lewis said. “It gets a little old after a while. I’m the only women in my department, and I think there’s this odd — it’s not an expectation, but no one else steps up to the plate for those ‘grunt’ tasks. They’re not glamorous tasks, but they’re part of your office culture, and it’s important to spread that out for everyone.”
Making It Better
Asked what those in positions of power can do to make their own workplaces more hospitable to women, the speakers said management should be more consciously accommodating of women in the hiring process, as well as in structuring company benefits like flex time and on-site child care.
“I think it’s important to hire outside of the friend group — people you know, people you’re familiar with,” said List. “Men hire other men. They want to hire people they’re familiar with, which makes sense. But you can break out of that comfort zone and try not to always hire people you know. And also, hiring based on enthusiasm and ability to learn, rather than skills people already have is beneficial, since not everybody has the same opportunity to attain those skills. People who are ready and willing will learn really fast and do really well.”
Noting that companies may discriminate against women if they believe they have busy family lives that will be hard to balance with professional careers, Cartoni argued that companies need to offer flexible scheduling and other accommodations. “I am the CEO of a company where I have very few women, but I try as much as I can to give them flexible timing for getting to work, being able to replace an afternoon for extra hours, or giving them a room where, if they don’t know what to do with their kids, they can bring them to the factory and have a room where they can stay,” she said. “These little things should be more common.”
Is That a Paid Internship?
One audience member noted that many women, especially women of color, are not able to work for free in order to secure one of the internships that can lead to a paid job down the line, an observation that elicited a lot of sympathy from the panelists, if no concrete solutions. “For me, a woman of color, maybe that’s why I ended up taking a corporate job,” said Hall. “It is challenging if you don’t come from means and you can’t just take a year off. It can be a burden regardless of what race you are.”
“I hate to see that happening,” said Lewis. “I hate to see women wanting it so bad they went to school for four years but can’t find a place because of it. I don’t really have a solution. But if anybody [here] has an effect on that issue? Pay your interns.”
Another woman in the audience lamented the lack of female mentors and role models in sports broadcasting. Panelists agreed that it’s unusually tough to make a mark in a segment of the business that still has no real tradition of women in positions of power.
“I just want to say that you might be the first,” said Hall, pointing back at her. “At Universal Music … we have our first female CEO of music publishing. She’s the first woman in the whole music industry to have a CEO position. [But] she had to change from another company to get that CEO position. She was there 25 years, struggling, and she wasn’t getting where she wanted to be. So there’s still hope.”