Donna Smith, the Managing Director of Rise, the global advocacy membership organisation supporting gender diversity across the media technology sector, has had a career that has cut across a broad swathe of the media industry, writes John Maxwell Hobbs.
Smith’s experience covers working in the digital gaming industry, through to senior roles with companies like Rovi and NBCUniversal. This gives her an extremely well-informed perspective on the issues facing women working in media.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of skilled applicants for broadcast technology roles, particularly among women. Smith believes that the main reason for this is a lack of awareness of the roles that are available. She also feels that the messaging around this needs to focus on more than just young people. “Parents aren’t aware that there’s a career path and good career development in the broadcast industry,” she said. “It’s an educational piece at a parents’ level, rather than a young adults’ level.”
It’s also important to communicate just what goes into making a programme. “You take for granted that you’re watching TV, and there are people behind the cameras, there are people in the studios, there are people running around putting all these programmes together.
If more technically minded, and business savvy young women knew that they could be part of that, I’m sure they’d probably try and pursue it,” she said.
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It doesn’t stop there, according to Smith. More effort needs to be put into ensuring that women stay in the industry. “There are fantastic young women that are very dedicated to staying in the broadcast industry but are facing obstacles and challenges to allow them to stay,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s more important keeping them in,” said Smith. “We’ve got the academy, and that does a very good job of attracting younger people into the industry. But I think right now is more about what does it look like to keep our young female talent in the industry?”
Mentorship programmes for women in broadcast technology
Smith emphasises the importance of peer support, and Rise’s role in providing mentors for women in the industry. “We don’t see a great deal of mentorship going on inside companies,” she said. “I think that there’s an awareness in the industry that we do have the mentorship programme, and people are very much encouraged apply.”
The recent success of Rise’s mentorship scheme has led them to expand the programme. “We’re changing how we accept people onto the programme for 2024,” she said. “This year we had about 220 applicants just for the UK. And we took the normal designated 26 mentees. In 2023 we’re not going to have a set number but will open it up to more people. If we have 250 applicants and we get 60 strong applications, then 60 people will be on the programme.”
Changing skillsets in broadcast technology
Broadcasting technology has been undergoing a sea change, away from a discipline that was primarily oriented around electrical and mechanical engineering. The move to IT-based production, IP transmission, and streaming has completely changed the skills needed.
For Smith, this widens the field. “I think everyone’s really a broadcast engineer now. If you’re using TikTok, Instagram, or whatever, you’re in some way, shape, or form, broadcasting,” she said.
“I think, again, it comes down to that lack of awareness - that maybe women don’t realise that they probably can do these jobs. It’s a lot more digitally focused now, where the technology is probably in line with where they are and what they’re doing. They probably don’t realise they’ve got these skills because they are using them every day.”
“We run a cloud production certification course with Grabyo for our mentees, where they do two four-hour modules,” explained Smith. “They absolutely love it. Some of these people weren’t technical at all, but they said, ‘Oh, it was brilliant! I was doing the sound mixing I was doing this, I was doing that.’ It’s not like rocket science. It’s just giving them the confidence to be able to have a go and succeed and experience it, and maybe we’ll get future amazing engineer out of just doing that cloud production course.”
For Smith it’s about expanding horizons. “It’s just giving people the opportunity and showing what’s out there,” she said. “I think that a lot of that comes again down to mentorship, succession planning, and not pigeon-holing women – ‘that’s a man’s job, or men are more technically minded,’ or whatever the unconscious bias might be. We’re resilient, just as a species. I don’t think it comes down to sex, I think it’s just how we are as humans - resilient, adaptable, that’s how we’ve survived. That’s the beauty of collaboration: success, resilience, adaptability. I think women are very good at that, because we’re nurturers, we’re Team players. So we shouldn’t be put to one side. We can change the world.”
Gender inequality in the broadcast industry
Organisations need to address their structural inequities to really address gender inequality Smith believes. “Jobs tend to stay in familiar groups of people,” she said. “It’s very much about that sort of old boy’s network and the way that men seem to put their mates up for promotion or a job. A lot of it is around succession planning. When they’re looking internally, who are the women that they can champion that may be a bit lower down the rung, but a good person to succeed within the engineering team? And I think more of that needs to be done within organisations, not just from a senior executive team, but from an HR perspective.”
Unconscious gender bias still comes into play. “Women are constantly told, ‘Well, you weren’t going to have this promotion. We weren’t sure when you’re going to be starting a family, and we really can’t have maternity leave impacting this position or this project,” said Smith. “We hear a lot of that. Whereas, if a man was becoming a dad, just because he wasn’t pregnant, that conversation wouldn’t ever happen.”
Rise has identified generally accepted working conditions as a significant obstacle for retaining female staff. The highly stressful Outside Broadcast environment highlights a number of areas that need to be improved in the working environment as a whole.
“We recently put on an OB workshop for women,” said Smith. “At our International Women’s Day event, one of the ladies from the OB community stood up and said, ‘We love Rise, we love your mentorship programme, it’s an incredible community to be part of, but I can’t participate.’ Because of the nature of her working on the trucks, she could never do the mentorship programme because of the way that it’s geared up. She’s travelling all around the country, she’s travelling internationally, she’s working shifts - she just couldn’t fit in the commitment to the programme.”
Based on that request, Rise developed an intensive workshop for OB staff that accommodated the irregular schedules experienced by OB crews. “They wanted to build a community within Rise,” said Smith. “They wanted to increase their skill set. They wanted to have the benefits that we offer through our mentorship programme, but could we do it in a more condensed way? And honestly, they were just so thrilled to be in a room with one another. We were hearing stories along the lines of their being at events, in trucks side by side, next to one another, not even knowing that they were at the same event.”
A lot of experiences were shared at the event, and it was illuminating. “Some of the things that they have to endure,” said Smith, “at Glastonbury, the World Cup, whatever it is - there’s no sanitary products, there’s no toilets, there’s no basic things that you they need. Or being in dark places alone at night - all these things that the men don’t give a second thought to. And the women say they feel a bit vulnerable, a bit exposed.”
Smith emphasises that the career path for women in the OB world is different than that for men. “You wouldn’t look at the OB industry and see a woman that’s been in it for a long period of time,” she said. “Because when they do start raising a family, that life of working on a truck is not conducive to being a mum. You do get a lot of drop out there, which is understandable. And that’s not a criticism of anyone. But from that period of women entering the workforce and saying, ‘well, I’d really like to be on a truck for maybe 10 to 15 years’ to when they want to start a family - what does that 10 to 15 years look like? Are they getting the support that they need to be safe? Are they getting the sanitary support, the toilets, the showers that, because sometimes their facilities, are shared with men, they feel exposed, they feel vulnerable. What can we do to improve that? There’s just so much nuance, there’s so much to it. It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’ve got diversity, we’ve ticked the box,’ there’s more to think about.”
Outlook for the future
Smith’s vision for Rise and the industry as whole is to look beyond recruitment. “Look after the women that you’ve got, and really make sure that they can stay in the industry,” she said. “Be aware of the contribution that they’re making and support them in the right way. I think that’s my biggest message. And that’s what I’m all about driving for Rise in 2024 - what more can we do for women? What more can we offer them? How much more can we support them? Not so much about how are we getting them in? Because our academy does a really good job of that. But what is Rise’s role in keeping women in the broadcast industry? And how can we support them more?”