Monday, November 19, 2018

Violin Shop MeToo

I recently returned from this year's Violin Society of America convention in Cleveland.  I had a great time, and am looking forward to writing a post about my experiences soon, but first I wanted to share my part of a panel discussion I was privileged to be a part of.

We got to talking at last year's convention during the women's luncheon (which is a nice place for women in the industry to connect since there are so few of us) about what we experience in terms of discrimination.  The esteemed Marilyn Wallin gave a brave speech about some of the things she's endured, including a man tearing up a check for an instrument of hers after he discovered a woman had built it and then declared the idea too disgusting to contemplate, to the fact that women in the early days of the violin making schools were not allowed to build cellos.  (She had to hire one of the male students to teach her.  Marilyn currently makes some of the best damn cellos on the planet.)  

It sparked quite a conversation as everyone began to share their own stories.  Everyone has them, which is very much what the MeToo movement has been about.  As we talked over lunch and beyond, I started to ask why we weren't sharing these stories with men.  We know all these problems are ubiquitous.  It's men who do not.

So we decided to put together a panel discussion for the next convention, and we collected stories that women were too uncomfortable to attach their names to and edited them enough to provide anonymity.  I wrote the intro, my friend Robyn read the stories, and Marilyn contributed a new piece before I read a closing, and then we turned the discussion over to the audience.  The only real stumbling block we had was that various people in charge of organizing the talks at the convention kept trying to change our panel into one about general diversity, at one point promoting it as "How to Bring Diversity to Your Shop!" which struck me as a terrible bait and switch that would understandably upset people. I tried to address the diversity issue a bit (which is incredibly important, just not what we were doing), but was relieved when the wording was changed in the program before it went to print, and finally read "Panel Discussion: Experiences of Discrimination in the Workplace."

For anyone who is interested but couldn't attend the VSA convention this year, here is my talk:

Thank you so much for coming to our discussion on diversity as hosted by three cis-gendered, straight, white women!
The original concept for this panel was inspired by a piece by Marilyn Wallin that she read to a small group of us at last year’s women’s luncheon. She shared some of her experiences as a woman in our male dominated profession, and it got us talking about how such stories need to be shared with a wider audience. 

With you.

And the truth is there are larger issues of diversity that also need to be addressed beyond the experiences of just women. There is a large community of Asians with their own stories, members of the LGBTQ community to hear from, Latin Americans and Hispanics are not well represented here, and the dearth of African Americans in our industry is frankly an embarrassment.

The three of us can’t speak to those and other experiences, but we’re hoping by at least discussing the perspective of women in violin making that maybe some lessons apply to other groups, and at least open the door to more and varying discussions in the future. In the audience participation session at the end we welcome stories and opinions from anyone with a perspective they believe is generally overlooked. We want to hear you.

So first, here’s the good news: This audience is a bit like preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care. And I can say from my own experience and from talking to many women in this organization, that the VSA has been nothing but welcoming and inclusive. I am proud to be a member of this group, and I have always felt supported here.

That is a remarkable thing, and something I, and many other women, don’t take for granted.

However! I have had some interesting conversations in recent years with men here I like and respect and who I know are well-meaning, but who are―through no fault of their own―simply oblivious to how my experience in this field is different based on my sex.

Our goal here today is to fill in some blanks, and give people a chance to consider that there are challenges some of us face that they have been possibly unaware of. Once you know, you have the opportunity to do better.

I know this kind of discussion can be uncomfortable. Nobody wants to be told someone else is facing obstacles you are not if it seems to imply you have it easy. Life is a struggle for everyone. None of us are getting out of this alive. We all have obstacles to face and hardships to endure. Life isn’t fair.
But I have learned to recognize, for instance, that I have privileges I take for granted simply because I am able-bodied.
Because I am white.
Because I am straight.
Because I am middle class.
Because I am a citizen of this country.
These are things I didn’t ask for, but that give me advantages over others around me. These things don’t make me more deserving, but that’s how it plays out. 

I am granted the benefit of the doubt in many situations where someone else would be dismissed or caused to suffer.

If we aren’t aware of the unearned privileges we have, we can feel entitled to them, and not recognize how much harder it was for someone else to reach the same place we’ve gotten to without as much effort.

When it comes to women and harassment, you may not feel much obligation to listen because you probably just think since you would personally never do such a thing, this doesn’t apply to you.

But whether you realize it or not, you know men who have behaved badly toward women in this industry.

And by not actively paying attention to stop such behavior you become part of the problem. We need you to help us fix this because we can’t do it without you. Don’t disengage. Listen. Help.

Now, I personally don’t believe sexism exists in our field in a way that is disproportionate to the way it exists in the society at large. But it does exist. So I’d like to start by painting a picture of what women face in America today, and then focus more specifically on how that plays out in the quirks of our industry.

I think the major point I wish more men understood is just how vulnerable women are in our culture. We don’t get to navigate the world in a way that is not always on the defensive.

Everyone in this room knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted. They may not have talked to you openly about it, but women know from talking privately to each other how rampant the problem is.

Most of the time it is not reported. Personally, none of the women I know who have been raped ever saw their attacker punished in any way.

So we walk around knowing we could be abused, and there is relatively no protection from it or hope of justice if it happens. That’s terrifying.

I, myself, have been fortunate to get to this stage of my life having never been raped or violently assaulted. But, I have to navigate the world from the premise that it could happen at any time.
That reality dictates where I walk, when I can go places, what I can do.
The most dangerous thing in the world to women is men. When we say a neighborhood is dangerous, it is dangerous because of men. I am not saying there aren’t men that other men fear as well, but men have a freedom in the average situation or surrounding that we do not.

I remember years ago in a women’s studies class in college we were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and number eleven was “What do you think about when you walk alone at night?”
The men in the room were baffled. They laughed and asked how they were supposed to answer the question since on any given night they could be thinking about something different. And every woman in the class stared at them and said, “You get to think about whatever you want?”

I walked alone at night in college with my fist wrapped around a reamer in my Swiss army knife with the intent of jamming into the eye of a potential attacker.

When I walk alone at night now, I am making mental notes about the nearest place to run if I have to. I have to alter my route depending on where men are walking to avoid a confrontation. I still never get to think about whatever I want if I walk alone.

But as much as it affects us to have to operate with a low level sense of fear of strangers all the time, the truth is nearly all of the women I know who have had frightening, humiliating, or violent confrontations with men, it was most often with men they knew.

Even the good men I know, need to have a better sense of how their simply being male can be an implied threat. I have a black belt in jujutsu, and the main thing I learned in all that training was just how much stronger men really are.

Just because you know you would never hurt anyone, doesn’t mean we do. Most really scary encounters start as something small and then escalate. We can’t usually tell which situations will get worse and which ones are harmless.

That’s why it’s so insulting when a man tells us to just have a sense of humor about something we find offensive. We’ve learned from our own experiences and the experiences of women we know what kind of terrible turn certain things can take.

You’re not living in the same world we are.

If you really don’t understand why a man grabbing some part of our bodies can’t just be taken as paying us a compliment, then imagine the same thing was happening to you in a prison environment. It’s about power. And it’s frightening to be in a position where you feel like you have none.

With that kind of backdrop in mind, let’s look at the violin making world.

Here is what I can tell you about the women luthiers I know:
They are stubborn.
They are determined.
They are not easily dissuaded from doing something that interests them.
They can be either a bit oblivious to, or may deliberately ignore, any foolishness around them that might distract them their goals.
They are not worried about stereotypes or fitting into them.

This makes sense, because we kind of have to be these things to have gotten this far.  But I wonder about the number of women who have personalities that would be easily dissuaded and diverted from lutherie by an unwelcoming or potentially dangerous environment.

Maybe we lost the chance to see some really amazing instruments because this field didn’t give people a chance who could have been great.

Personally, I’ve never minded working in a male-dominated field. I like men a lot. I even married one! But that doesn’t mean I’m not self-conscious when I’m one of a very small number of women in a room.
For any man who can’t imagine why this should matter, flip the image in your mind the next time you walk into a typical VSA lecture. If the room were dominated by women you might feel out of place. You may not automatically feel understood or welcome in the same way as when you can take your surroundings for granted.
The big difference, though, is that a man in a room dominated by women may be uncomfortable, but doesn’t usually feel in danger.

A woman in a room full of men is mindful of her personal space and the location of the exits.

Before a woman ever gets to violin or bow making school, she has to contend with the general impression from society that we’re not supposed to be good with tools.

Women a generation before me were usually not allowed to take shop in school. When I was in Jr High things had progressed to where everyone had to take both Home Ec and Shop, but they changed shop to mechanical drawing. And even then, the notoriously sexist shop teacher never gave an A to a girl. It didn’t matter how precise and careful my drawings were, the boys next to me always got the higher grades, even though in regular art classes I was getting awards. But the biggest insult was that we never got to touch a tool, which I was dying to do.

To this day, employees in hardware stores look past me to talk to my husband. Most of the time I choose to find this amusing, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t frustrate me after years and years and years of it.

I once gave a presentation about violin making to the Wisconsin Woodworkers’ Guild where everyone in attendance to my recollection was male. After showing my specialized tools and talking through the general process of building a violin, I assured them that much of it came down to mastering “flat, smooth and square” and that the most elaborate and daunting of projects were all possible if you broke them down into small steps done with care.

They enjoyed it, and everyone was nice, but what sticks with me is the man who came up afterward to pay me what he saw as a compliment. He told me that when he first got there he couldn’t imagine what a woman would have to say about woodworking that would be worth listening to, but that he’d been pleasantly surprised. I still wonder how many others in the audience felt the same way.

So by the time we get to violin and bow making school, we’ve already had to fight upstream a bit just to be taken seriously for wanting to hold tools in our hands. Thankfully, women no longer look out of place at these schools, and they are offered the same opportunities at them as the male students, which was not always the case. 
But what happens when a woman is harassed at school? The first thing I hear most men ask is, “Why don’t you say something?” or “Why don’t you leave?” Think about that realistically for a moment.

Where would we go? The opportunities for learning these skills are few and far between, even now when there are more schools than ever. If the person we most want to learn from also doesn’t treat us well, what are our choices if this is what we really want to do? If speaking up only succeeds in shutting down the possibility of our getting to learn, what kind of a choice is that?

In cases of full on assault, we can be driven from a school, but when the harassment is low level, many of us decide to just brush it off as best we can.

Why? Because what is the realistic result of speaking up? In most of our experience, it only compounds the negatives for us. We’re looked at as humorless, as troublemakers, as overly sensitive.

Even when the incident is just a relatively small indignity and we don’t expect it to escalate, we still have to then move about with the idea in mind of avoiding a repeat of the incident, by never being alone with that person, or avoiding situations we might otherwise want to participate in. 
The truth is, the minute someone with more power than you touches you inappropriately in that setting?
It’s the same as saying:
I don’t respect you.
I don’t see you as equal to your fellow students.
I don’t take you seriously.
I feel entitled to treat your body as an object for my entertainment.

And when we don’t speak upeither out of shock or self-preservationit’s implied that we don’t mind.

These same problems carry forward into shops, where often women have to work in close spaces with men, and many times the businesses are family owned and run. That compounds the problem of how to speak up if something happens when we know perpetrators will be protected by their families over us. 
Not to mention that our industry is relatively small, and our reputations are everything. In order to work we’ve learned not to talk.

We’ve been surveying women in our industry about their stories, and several have agreed to share them anonymously. Some of them are shocking, but keep in mind that these are the kinds of stories women share with each other in private all the time.

This is how we’ve tried to keep each other safe by making each other aware of whom to avoid and when. Most men I know aren’t privy to such stories, but I think you should be.  We need to start including you in these conversations because every one of you knows someone these things have happened to.

And now I’d like to turn things over to my friend and colleague Robyn who will be reading some of the stories we’ve collected.

[ Robyn proceeded to read accounts ranging from:
being expected as the only woman in the shop to perform housekeeping tasks and making coffee which was never asked of the male students,
to having to suffer through boorish comments and critiques of their bodies,
to being touched inappropriately in various circumstances,
to having to put up with porn in the teacher's office and pinups in the workroom,
to being stunned by a man taking wood out of her arms that she was planning to purchase because he thought he deserved it more,
to being fired after refusing the advances of a colleague,
to full on assault that resulted in the delay of the maker's career by several years.]

And now I’d like to turn things over to Marilyn. If you haven’t read her piece that I mentioned in the beginning, it’s available in Volume 3 of The Scroll. I am honored to be a member of any organization she’s in.

[Marilyn then gave her own excellent talk touching on the economic impact of women in the workplace and the folly of excluding them in our, or any, industry.]

Thank you, Marilyn. For everything.

So where do we go from here? What can we do?

The good news is a lot of changes are already happening in the right direction. I want to reiterate that in my experience and in that of many women I know, the VSA has always been welcoming and supportive. This is huge.

The schools are no longer sexist in terms of their stated policies. They also know these are issues not to be swept under the rug. Simply having people in charge acknowledge that these problems are real and unacceptable is a big step forward. We just need to make sure women feel safe enough that if there are issues they can feel empowered to actually speak up.

There are more women in violin and bow making today than ever.

There are more women-run shops than ever.

Our numbers are still small, but we are visible enough that young girls looking at this profession are less likely than ever to feel excluded from lutherie as a career choice. I know my own kids think of tools as a mom thing. I don’t think it would occur to them to ask their dad for help with the bandsaw.

In terms of hiring, I think we can take a cue from the orchestra world. Blind auditions rapidly increased the number of women musicians at the professional level, and raised the level of excellence of orchestras wherever it was instituted to the point where it is standard practice. The system of blind judging at the VSA competitions has certainly given women here the chance to compete on a field free of bias and it has helped.

If you are truly interested in hiring based on quality of work, and want to decrease the possibility of unconscious bias, maybe have applicants submit work (like a bridge, or a board dressing) and have it rated by a qualified third party with no identifying information attached.

In general it helps just to be aware of the power difference that exists between men and women. I have a brother who is 6’4”―one of the gentlest kindest people I know―and he once told me he is always careful if he’s in a room with a woman never to stand between her and the door. That impressed me as a small, but thoughtful way to help create better peace of mind.

The easiest piece of advice I can give is to simply strive to be professional. If you have a colleague or an employee or a student who is female that you need to work with, it shouldn’t be difficult to treat her with respect.

Think how you would want someone to treat your mom or your sister or your daughter. I had the great fortune to be trained by Brian Derber in his home as his first student after leaving his teaching position at the Chicago School. He put in desk for me next to his in his home shop, and I could not have asked for a better working relationship. Brian was never anything short of professional or supportive. So I know first hand it can be done, and honestly, it didn’t look complicated.

So, again, life isn’t fair, and none of us have it easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct injustice when we see it. The impressive thing about our species is that we have the power to change behaviors and attitudes within a single generation if we want to.

The fact that we are openly having this discussion is a positive change.

We can choose to do better. I don’t see any reason why our profession can’t choose to be the most supportive and inclusive industry of all.

Lutheirs are nothing if not observant of details. I think we can elect to expand our focus to include details about how we relate to each other more fairly and to not add to someone else’s burden but help them succeed.

Thank you for your attention.

At this time we would like to open the floor to anyone with comments or ideas they would like to add to the discussion.

[And I am pleased to report people had constructive things to say all the way up until we had to relinquish the stage for the next presentation. I have some impressive and thoughtful colleagues.]


  1. Beautifully, powerfully written.
    As you include in your statement, I am always aware of my position in a room relative to a female and an exit. I have to be particularly attentive when working with female students at the university. This means keeping my office door open when speaking with a student, giving students space, and making no assumptions about prior experience or capability based on sex.
    I still have much to learn, and hearing about others' negative experiences adds insight as to how not to behave.

    1. That's really interesting, Barrett, since the brother who told me this thought was Arno! Doesn't surprise me at all that it's something you are conscious of as well. I've talked to a couple of men who told me they changed what they do once they heard me describe this idea.