Proving Yourself

By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
Although I am focusing this article on live sound as this is my area of familiarity, I am sure that those of you working in other areas- audio for gaming, post, broadcast, etc…

I think it’s safe for me to say that most, if not all of us, women feel incredible pressure to work harder, smarter, and faster than our male peers, especially when first starting out.  This is a male dominated business and there are still some men out there who feel women have no place in it.   It’s hard for anyone to break into live sound and the music business in general, but possibly harder for a woman.  First, you’ve got to fight the stereotypes and preconceived notions of others on why you want to do this in the first place.  Second, you’ve got the physical limitations- we’re just not as strong as men.  However, I have seen many occasions where women have been able to show they were indeed more capable of doing the heavy lifting than the men they were working with, hence the working smarter.

There are still very few women in live sound, and there is a lot of speculation that a big part of the reason is because it involves a lot of heavy lifting and hard labor.  Many of us get our start at a sound company or with a local band.  We dive in with both feet, loading and unloading trucks, tipping consoles, stacking PA, pushing heavy gear around.  We work our butts off, showing the guys we can work just as hard and as long as them.   We do this to gain respect and to show that we are capable of doing the job.  As pointed out by a fellow sound girl- “The big hurdle young women immediately face I believe, is the physical one. ‘Sound by the pound’ is true, and being new, you will start out doing more physical work than mental/console work.  If your not able to hold your own against the (often loud and boisterous) guys, it’s one of the first things you hear them comment about, and that can easily make you feel like you’re not pulling your weight.  You often work twice as hard to get only half as far”.

Even after one progresses through the ranks, we still face the mental fatigue of having to deal with the local guy who just assumes it’s your first gig, and that he needs to tell you how to do your job, the stage hands who don’t want to listen to a woman giving them orders, the artist who feels the need to test you on your skills, the girlfriends/wives of the band who are sure you are there for one reason only, etc…

The compulsion to prove ourselves can help us and hurt us.

I find it hard to believe that any of the men we work with on tour have ever felt the need to prove they were capable of doing the physical labor involved in the job, or that they actually knew signal flow, proper gain structure, basic troubleshooting, and so on.  In fact, I know many of them who don’t have these skills, and still they seem to get job after job without a problem.  On the other side of that, many of those guys always remain mediocre at best at their gigs because there is nothing to motivate them into improving their skills or their craft.  That same pressure we feel to prove ourselves forces us to always improve and learn more about our profession, and it does gain us respect- when you work hard, people notice.

When you work at the local level or as a stage hand, you don’t have much choice in doing the physical labor part of the gig.  When you’re a one woman crew, loading the sound system into the van or truck, driving it to the gig, setting it up, running it, loading it out, and driving it back to the shop, you’ve got no choice- it’s all part of the job, and if you can’t pull it off you lose the gig.  However, no one is expecting you to do the impossible, and it’s ok to ask for help.

Some of us really enjoy the physical work that goes into the job.  We like being active and working hard, and there is a real sense of satisfaction that comes after an arduous day of work. “I always felt like I had to prove myself by working to the extreme, but I think also it’s just a part of my nature….my makeup. Even before I started doing audio, I picked male dominated, physical jobs. I like to work hard and feel like I have accomplished something at the end of the day, even something as simple as loading a truck (which sometimes isn’t so simple).” says a fellow woman engineer.  When you like to work, it’s very difficult to sit around and watch when there is work to be done, but at some point you’ve got to realize what is exactly required of you and what isn’t.  If you work yourself to exhaustion or to the point where you get careless and injure yourself, you are no good to the tour or the company you are working for.  Learn how to delegate.  The labor is there for a reason, if they injure themselves there will be someone else to replace them on the next call.  If you injure yourself and are on tour, at worst- you lose the gig if the injury is severe enough, at best- someone else has to pick up your slack.  Neither are good situations to be in.

On my first tour, I insisted on helping push every piece of gear up the ramp into the truck at load out.  It was a club tour, we had plenty of stage hands but I felt like I needed to prove I could do it.  One of the guys on my crew took me aside, shook his head and told me, ‘ let the stage hands do it, it’s their job and they’re being paid to do it, you’re being paid to mix the band’.  I had a hard time taking his advice.  I was raised to work hard and never stop when there was work to be done.  It was part of my upbringing and it transferred right into my work life.  That and the earnest desire to show I could do it, that I was as tough and strong as any of them, made me feel like I earned my right to be there.   But honestly, I was the FOH engineer and we weren’t carrying anything more than backline at the time.  All I had to do was walk in and mix, and walk away after the gig.  I still to this day have never been able to do that.  Even when touring in Japan, where the Japanese crew takes pride in everything being set up perfectly upon your arrival, I can’t help but ask what I can do when the show is over and it’s time for load out.  But the difference is I now know my limits, and that it is more important for me to do my job of mixing the show, than to show that I am not afraid of hard work.  I will never be a brief case engineer and I am not the least bit afraid of jumping in when there is need but as far as needing to prove myself, I’m over it.

There is also longevity to think about.  Touring is hard work.  Spending countless hours in a plane, on a bus, and in hotel beds is not easy on the body.  If we expect to be able to do this job for a long time we need to take care of ourselves.  All those years of pushing our bodies to extremes will eventually catch up.

So when is enough enough?  When are we allowed to say- you know what, I have this job for a reason.  I’ve got years of experience behind me, and I’m good at my job, that’s why I’m here.  I can still be good at my job without working myself into exhaustion, running circles around the rest of the crew, gaining nothing, but burning myself out.  I have earned my place and deserve respect from my peers.  Can we ever get to that point?  When (if ever), can we stop feeling like we must continue to prove ourselves?  Why isn’t just knowing your job, doing it, and being good at it enough?

How many of us women have worked through injuries that would have been better served with rest and non use of the injured muscle, only to delay the recovery because we felt we had to work through the pain for fear of being thought of not being able to handle the job?   I’ve done many tours with guys who won’t do any lifting.  Either they have injured themselves in the past or they just don’t want to do the hard work but no one thinks twice when they stand there and give instructions to the stage hands on how to tip the console while never putting a hand on it.  It took me a seriously, long time to stop being one of the eight people needed to tip my XL4.  I mean, I’m the FOH engineer,  I should help set the beast up right?  Only after a couple bouts of stage hands three times my size, thinking they could just pretend they were lifting while letting the rest of us do all the work did I say, enough.  It’s not worth it for me to give myself a hernia or have someone drop this thing on me, which means I have to go home and lose the gig.  And you know what?  The funny thing is no one ever gives it a second thought when I stand at FOH and give instructions instead of being a participant in the tipping of the FOH console.

When are we comfortable enough to say -I know I can do the job and I know I deserve to be here and if anyone wants to question that, that’s their problem.  I have more than paid my dues in this business and do not need to prove anything to anyone.

One thing that helped me get to that point was the fact that I was working so hard it was allowing others to slack off.  I was mixing FOH for an act on an arena tour.  After I finished setting up FOH everyday, I would go to the stage and help mic and wire the inputs, even though we had a guy on the crew, from the sound company, whose sole job was to do all the stage cable and patching.  Old habits die hard, and since it didn’t take me all that long to set FOH, what else was I going to do?  So one day about a week into the tour, I’m up on stage mic’ing the drum kit and notice that our stage patch guy is nowhere to be found.  When I asked if anyone knew where he was because the sub snakes hadn’t been run yet… I was told he was in the back lounge playing video games. Hmm, well that was the last day I patched the stage on that tour.  Because I was becoming more and more efficient at my gig, stage patch guy figured he would let me do more and more of his.  I don’t think so.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard or that once we get to a certain point in our careers we can start slacking, but how many of us insist on continuing to run circles around the guys, doing far more than our job requires just to show we can even after years and years in the business?  Is it because we want to work ourselves into exhaustion or because we feel that we are still being judged by everyone around us of whether we’re worthy of our place on the crew?

I believe part of the getting to the point where you no longer feel the need to prove yourself is having not only the confidence that we know the job and are capable of doing it, but also letting go of that need to feel approval from everyone else.  If you walk into a gig with a confident attitude in your abilities, people will sense that, and while they may still be sizing you up in their heads they are more likely to treat you as an equal or greater.  If you walk in timid, meek, and unsure of yourself they’ll be most likely treat you in kind.  You don’t have to know everything and you don’t have to be afraid to admit you don’t know everything.  Just do your gig, do it the best you can, and that’s all anyone can ask of you.  Whatever preconceived judgements or ideas they have in their head is their problem.

I invite all of you to join the discussion in the forums to talk about how you’ve overcome feeling the need to prove yourself or what problems you are struggling with in doing so.


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