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It was late June in southern California, circa 2006, and I was uncomfortably sitting in the boardroom of a large corporation with about 28 other people—all of whom were older, more knowledgeable, and more experienced than me.

It was the quarterly come-to-Jesus meeting and all of management was there. CEO, CFO, COO, the entire C-suite of managers and their respective department leads, a roundtable if you will, of all the different people who were responsible for making things happen.

And then there was me.

I remember sitting in the back corner next to my manager, who was behind his manager, who was actually sitting at the table next to his manager, who was the head of all research and development.

At the time I was a young engineer; I was eager to prove myself but I was also so, so nervous. In that conference room I was one of only four women, and by far the youngest; and I absolutely did not fit into the overbearing demographic of middle-aged men who openly referred to me as one of “the girls.”

And that always bothered me but I never said anything.

I was in that meeting as one of the technical leads to provide support for the R&D department, particularly for an idea we felt would make a big impact.

So I went and sat there for 3 hours. And didn’t say a single word.

After all, no one asked me a question and I was thrilled to have escaped the experience of having an entire room full of people turn around to listen to me explain the mechanics behind our nitinol orthodontic appliance. Instead I sat quietly listening to a bunch guys pitch their own ideas regardless of whether they were asked, and regardless of how good or bad those ideas were.

I didn’t realize it at the time but I made a huge mistake.

I was timid. I was young. I was a woman in an old boys’ club. I was out of place. 

joyce in a field

But more than anything, no one in that room believed I had anything to bring to the table—myself included—and that’s where I failed.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to contribute, it was that I gave up on an opportunity without even trying because I felt inadequate.

We have a certain perspective on what women are and aren’t capable of and what we are and aren’t good at. That mindset has been a part of our human fabric for thousands of years and it’s been reinforced through both cultural and historical precedence.

Women aren’t expected to lead and that mindset spans both genders; society as a whole sees women in a different light and the first step to changing that is for women to believe they can lead.

Because if we ourselves don’t even believe we’re capable how can we expect others to?

I noticed this with both myself and others I’ve met in the engineering world. And when I moved to the filmmaking industry I found things to be very similar.

The single biggest challenge women in film face is not believing in themselves enough to act on it.   

Women have made huge strides in recent decades across many industries, from the corporate world to in our homes, but we are still constantly fighting for things like equal compensation and equal opportunities. That is certainly true in the filmmaking world.

Now let’s be clear. The filmmaking industry is not an easy space, regardless of gender.

Women aren’t singled out as the only group that needs support.

Anyone who is young, who is a minority, who didn’t go to film school or is a self-educated filmmaker faces a lot of the same challenges female filmmakers do and I am in no way discounting any of that.

I’m also not saying that caucasian guys who went to film school have it set for life. That’s simply not true.

We all have our doubts and challenges. Mine just happen to fall in line with a lot of other women I’ve met and it is my hope that what I share here will help them in their journey.

Some might say I’m a glutton for punishment. I went from engineering to filmmaking, from one male-dominated industry to another, so I’m just asking for it. Perhaps that is true but I’ve always been one to follow my heart and whether that is in science or in storytelling I intend to pursue it and contribute to it regardless of the challenges along the way.

Over the years I’ve made a ton of mistakes and through those experiences I’ve discovered…

Not many in the filmmaking industry expect women to succeed—women included—and that is where we need to start.

Ladies, here are 4 things you can do to turn this challenge into lasting change.

1. Don’t Be A Female Filmmaker, Be A Filmmaker

This might sound contradictory but it’s not. The more we label ourselves as female filmmakers, as women in film, as anything gender specific, the more we succumb to all the challenges we face because we are women.

Think about it.

Christian Louboutin doesn’t say “I am a male fashion designer.” He had a passion, he pursued it and he excelled in it. And guess what? The world doesn’t label him by his gender, rather his recognized for his work and contribution to his art.

That’s why I’m always hesitant to call myself a female filmmaker, I’m just a filmmaker.

It’s not about ego and it’s not about making a statement, it’s about what matters. And what matters is separating ourselves from any kind of stigma or pre-determined notion of what we can do based on gender.

That also means we can’t cut ourselves any slack just because we’re women.

joyce mercedes

If I’m traveling with Patrick and he offers to help me with my ridiculously heavy 35 lbs. carry-on, I’ll gladly take it. But I’m also prepared to manage that on my own for all the projects I do without him. But if every other DP is expected to know the ins and outs of the technicalities of lighting and camera then why should I be able to get away with any less just because I’m a woman?  

If Martin Scorsese and Roger Deakins had to earn their way up to the top, so do we. Leaning on gender classification or any kind of affirmative action isn’t a good way to do it.

I don’t work with Amina, Lilah and Mary just because they are women. I work with them because they are amazing people and exceptional at what they do.

Stop labeling yourself as a female filmmaker. Have the confidence to say you’re a filmmaker, just like the other guy.

2. Be Persistent

The first step to running a marathon is seeing yourself at the finish line, otherwise why start? As important as it is to buy the right running shoes and figure out what your 1-year training plan the most important thing is taking that first step onto the pavement.

Don’t shy away from what you want to become just because there aren’t very many women in those roles. Be it acting or directing, or being behind the camera, whatever it is that you want to do, take action to chase after it and take that leap. Then do it again, and again, and again.

It will be immensely challenging but seeing a clear path and having persistence is crucial to making lasting change.

As passionate and as serious as people are about losing weight, being healthy, and keeping that new year’s resolution most don’t get past January before they stop going to the gym regularly. And most stop short of a marathon before they even run their first 5K.

But talk to those who run countless marathons and they will tell you that while they all visualize themselves crossing the finish line during the race they almost always focus on the next mile and what they need to do to get there first.

This holds true in filmmaking.

When I first helped Stillmotion on a wedding years ago, I had a camera and shot a little here and there but was really more of an assistant. From there I was second camera on some of our early commercial projects with the NFL, supporting the team where and when I could.

And that experience led to being a lead cinematographer on a Game of Honor, our first feature-length documentary with Showtime, often handling shoots by myself or leading another shooter. From there I was able to hone my skills in camera and lighting enough to DP and lead crews on commercial, documentary, and narrative work like #standwithme and My Utopia. And now I’m one of the partners and creative directors at Stillmotion.

Some may say that I had a unique opportunity, and I won’t dispute that, but I also believe that where we are is directly correlated to what we put in. It took years but I learned that success is built through charting a path to achieve your goals and having the persistence to work through it.

With each opportunity comes its own challenges and you have to believe you can overcome every one of them to move ahead—and that takes persistence.

jessbrian0192

Believe in yourself enough and others will too.

As harsh as it might sound most people don’t care who you are.

Directors, producers, clients, heck even Stillmotion—people don’t give opportunities because of gender, or race, or age—they give opportunities because of what they believe you can do, and that starts with you having the persistence to continually believe in it yourself.

3. Set The Right Expectations

When I went into that boardroom meeting and didn’t say a single thing, it set me back. And it hurt me far beyond just not sharing my idea at the time. It set a precedence, one that wasn’t good for me and where I wanted to go.

Instead of speaking up and contributing I just sat quietly in the corner, unheard and unseen. And as much as I aspired to sit at the table one day I did absolutely nothing to work towards that.

By not saying anything, I said I wasn’t interested.

And that significantly affected both how I approached other opportunities and how others viewed me when new opportunities came up.

If you want to sit at the table, set the expectation that you intend to play a significant role, and then show them that you belong there.

This is HUGE.

Don’t sit around waiting for your number to be called. Be proactive in working towards who you want to become. Listen and learn as much as you can, but then speak up and show interest, show confidence, show willingness to explore, and willingness to fail. Go to that meeting prepared with something to share, something to contribute—and then when that time comes, speak up.

Set the expectation that you are immensely valuable, that you have a perspective like none other, and share that openly. Once you do, you will find a way to make it happen.

This is as important for those you work with as it is for yourself.

This is how you look past your own inadequacies. This is how you push yourself forward. This is how you get to the table.

4. Show And Not Tell

When we share our ideas on storytelling, we often tell people to show and not tell. That’s important because it allows people to come to their own conclusions, as opposed to you telling them what to think. And by letting people form their own opinions of you, they will believe in you that much more, and you will have that much stronger of an advocate when it comes to crew and referrals.

Showing and not telling is exactly how effective campaigns work.

Some companies, like Apple, do this very well. They don’t have to tell you to buy their phones, their computers and their smartwatch, you arrive at that yourself, just through seeing what they can do for you.

As a filmmaker, that’s what you have to do.

Don’t tell agencies, clients, networks, DPs that you can shoot, act, or direct…instead SHOW THEM.

Show, don’t tell.

If I’m a bride, I don’t need you to tell me how many weddings you’ve shot. I just want to see weddings I connect with on your website. If I’m a client, I don’t care if you say you’re awesome at what you do, I just want to see your work and I’ll decide for myself if it’s any good.

The producer from the NFL Network who found us online through a wedding film put us on the field because we showed her we could tell real stories with real people in real time.

Similarly, the producers at CBS call and ask for me not because I’ve told them that I can shoot, or because I’ve said I can be the unexpected 5’2” girl in a room full of football dudes who can totally disarm them—they call because I’ve shown them that I’m capable.

joyce and football

You can say who you are and what you can do all day long, but it’s way more effective to just show it.

Last year I had the opportunity to DP a project for CBS’s Army & Navy tease. It was something that would air right before kickoff, and something that ultimately went on to earn an Emmy nomination. I can confidently say that that opportunity came from a history of simply delivering, and then leveraging each shoot to build on that to continue getting even larger opportunities.

Now, getting larger opportunities from showing that you can do something isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is the amount of self-confidence you build when you realize what you can do.

In showing yourself what you’re truly capable of, you’ll start to build a healthy amount of self-confidence, and perhaps even surprise yourself along the way.

It doesn’t come all at once but little by little you will start to see all you’re capable of. Over time that then turns into a snowball effect, showing you and those around you all that you have to offer.

These are my personal thoughts, observations, and experiences of my journey as a female filmmaker working to be known without the unnecessary qualifier of “female”—of wanting to be known simply as a filmmaker.

And while many woman may chime in and find my experiences to be relatable and familiar, I don’t think the ideas presented here are limited entirely to women.

They’re far more universal than that.

If we all work to be more persistent and confident in our craft, and if all work to set the right expectations, and show and not tell, I really believe that we, as filmmakers, will be able to overcome any challenges that come our way.

How about you?

What are some challenges that you’ve overcome through persistence? Setting the right expectations? Showing and not telling?

 

About Joyce Tsang

3 Comments

  • Gaby says:

    This is so real for me. I’m a female, minority, 5’2″, and a film school reject. Haha.

    I was into music before I got into film and attended a bible college in Southern California straight out of high school. I was interested in running sound for bands and took the audio + recording class in order to learn more. That gave me the opportunity to be doing sound 4 days a week. Audio engineering is a male dominated field as well and I kept working hard at it. I was looked down on a lot cause I was this short little girl next to all these real tall guys who “knew what they were doing”. I had to work real hard to prove myself as a competent sound engineer by jumping in and teaching others how to use the equipment and I now have a job as an audio engineer for events at Qualcomm, Inc in San Diego. Its definitely an example of what you were talking about.

    Film is the next stepping stone and I’ve been working hard at it but have had a hard time to set the right expectations and meet like-minded people to jump into a project I am making. Audio engineering is mainly a one-man band. Filmmaking has too many roles to try to pull of by myself. Networking is definitely a challenge for me. Hoping to get better at it.

    • Joyce says:

      You’re like my twin! minus the film school part :)

      It’s certainly not an easy industry to navigate and I do think that holds true for both men and women. Some of us are at a slight disadvantage yes but I feel like the way to get pass those challenges of being new, or different, or inexperienced is universal. Know what you want, set the right expectations, be persistent, show you can do it and people will start to believe it too.

      Networking can be challenging, especially if you’re on the quieter side like me, but it’s important – as is collaboration. I learn a ton when I work with others out there. If you haven’t already check out Story & Heart’s Academy, they have an awesome community for people to learn and grow together.

      Thanks so much for sharing your voice here. The more we bring this to light and talk about it the closer we’ll all be at helping each other achieve our goals.

      • Gaby says:

        I am basically your twin! I haven’t checked out Story&Heart Academy yet but I am on the MUSE storytelling pilot program. I will look into budgeting for the academy then :)

        And absolutely, I feel like it is an important thing to be open and honest about this kind of thing so we can help each other. Thanks Joyce!

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