Just a few days ago I gave a presentation on my experiences as a female woodworker in what we know is a male-dominated field. Some were not able to make it but expressed an interest in what I had to say. Here is the transcript of that presentation. My great thanks and appreciation to Tom Lie-Nielsen and Deneb Puchalski for the invitation to speak at such an incredible event. The other names on the roster are all people I have admired for years, reading their articles, books, or following their blogs. It was an honor to be part of that group.
Lie- Nielsen Presentation
Greetings, everyone! Welcome to the Lie-Nielsen Open House. I hope you are all enjoying your time here. We appreciate you coming out. And I especially appreciate you taking the time to hear me speak. It means a lot. Thank you.
My name is Danielle Rose Byrd and I’m a woodworker and carver. I am also a member of the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event Staff and have done 3 show seasons, which means that I have the honor of traveling around the country teaching hand tool woodworking techniques. I don’t work here in Warren, but I live in Bar Harbor about 2 hours up the coast near Acadia National Park, so I only do the traveling shows. In my personal work, I do a variety of things, but I’m currently focused on bowl carving and other forms of green woodworking. I like to make pieces that utilize traditional techniques but infuse modern designs and improvisational shaping. I see myself in the gray area between traditional woodworking, art and design. It’s a sliver of an existence. I’ve also been known to make some furniture, which are usually small pieces like step stools and shelves. I really like spanning the spectrum, and having multiple projects going on at once.
I’m here to shed some insight into my experiences as a female woodworker in what we know is a male-dominated industry. This is a tough subject, and I wont pretend that this topic was easy for me to approach, even though I deal with it every single day. My guess was that I would come into a room comprised of mostly men – to talk about being a woman. That in itself is a challenge for anyone, to talk about an experience and perspective that is not that of your audience, to be the “other” in the room.
I want to be clear and recognize that not everyone behaves in the ways that I have experienced. I ask that for the rest of my talk you open yourselves up to the fact that I am speaking generally here, and am not directly speaking to any of you. The people in the scenarios I am relaying to you are not present, and I refuse to accept that all men behave this way, because its just not true. I also ask that you LISTEN with the objective of understanding, and resist the urge to form an immediate response. I would be happy to address any questions or comments at the end of the talk during the Q & A portion.
I guess this is part of my point, too, that I even feel the need to mention this, because many times when I speak of my experience, others frequently rush to defend themselves or their position or explain my own situation to me through their lens. It is much more infrequent that I find someone asking questions because they want to understand where I’m coming from. It is not an easy thing, listening to people from who you are different, from whom you disagree, and still choosing to respect them. But it is a choice, and I encourage you to make the choice of truly listening. I know this is not how woodworking talks usually go – and that’s purposeful, because I would like to be the change I want to see. And I want to be very clear that what I want is not to provide a syllabus for how I think people should behave at all times. Am I going to solve gender inequality in the trades in the next 30 minutes? No, because that job is far beyond what anyone should be expected to do. But in that time frame I want to convey my struggles by opening up a dialogue, posing questions, pointing out my concerns, and facilitating the development of the consciousness of woodworking culture as a whole. Because it always begins here and it always begins now.
Though I wish I could say that my conversations with other female woodworkers didn’t always contain a slew of story-sharing about all of the questionable, condescending, or just plain inappropriate things that have been said to us, its just not true. Many times it comes down to us commiserating about the unreal thing that happened to us at so-and-so’s a couple of years ago. And there are staggering similarities between all of the stories. So how do I suggest one speaks to a female woodworker? Just like you would a male one. It’s really that simple. I don’t want to hear comments about my hair, or how pretty I look, or what I’m wearing, or if I really made the thing I just told you I made. Or better yet, asking if my husband made it. I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, but she didn’t make it either. I hear time and again when any talk comes up about the importance of women in woodworking that people wish it could just be about the woodworking. I assure you that I would love for nothing more.
I grew up in Rumford, a struggling paper mill town in western Maine. It was a rough place to grow up, and perhaps even more so for a kid like me who did not subscribe to a set of rules of how a young girl “should” behave. Let me be clear, I was not that kind of tough backwoods girl who bought pink camo sweatshirts and went hunting with the boys. Pink hammers don’t interest me. Hammers do. I didn’t want a girl-i-fied version of every tool, piece of clothing, or machinery a typical guy might use, and I still don’t. I wanted whatever the guys were using because I saw myself as the same, someone who was interested in tools.
Sometimes it is helpful for a woman to have things designed specially for them, like workpants, because our bodies are different. But painting a miniature hammer with no true capacity to perform is not my idea of an olive branch. As a woman I am not asking for special things painted pink, I am asking for things that work. I am not demanding, I am not high maintenance, I am not crazy, and I am not entitled because I ask for pants that are doubled all the way up the front, built of durable material, and also leave room for my hips. It is time that we ditch the low-hanging fruit of a man/woman theme and move beyond the typical sitcom scenarios where the woman screams demands and the guy calls her crazy. I think we are all capable of much more than those reductive roles.
When I was young I was what many would call a tomboy, except it went further than that. Its not so much that I wanted to be a boy, though I did dress 100% like one, and even shaved part of my head when I was nine and insisted that I have a baseball and bat shaped into it…its that I wanted to be treated like a boy.
Though I couldn’t put words to what I was feeling then, it has elicited a lot of introspection and thought since. I passed completely for male and was called “sir” everywhere I went. People listened to me and didn’t question my feelings or my opinions. Best of all, I wasn’t interrupted or instructed on how to do things at every step. My awareness of this was acute and profound because of how immediately it followed the change of my physical appearance. I loved it! People, men and women alike, even other children, didn’t question my abilities and recognized my accomplishments. I felt like they understood my worth the same way that I valued it. It was liberating, but also incredibly disheartening to have a very aware understanding of societies’ perspective of both men and women before I turned 10. Thankfully I had parents that gave me free reign to express myself. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how those difficulties between how I wanted to behave and how I was expected to would have manifested themselves.
I am still so grateful that I grew up in a time when shop class was still around. I wouldn’t be surprised if others in the room have fond and vivid memories of developing their love for woodworking while in a school shop class. When I was in middle school I had a shop teacher whom I LOVED. And it took me some time to figure out why I felt so strongly towards him, beyond learning that I loved to work with my hands.
It turned out that I loved him because he didn’t let me get away with a thing. He encouraged me not to chalk up any misfortune or mistake or hesitation to me being female. He encouraged me to look beyond the enculturation he knew existed, the culture of women being thought of as less than, even by women, even by ourselves. He asked exactly of me what he asked of everyone. He asked that I meet him there, and because of him I asked more of myself from then on. I taught myself how not to make excuses, and I held myself accountable more often, or at least began the process of asking myself deeper questions about why my interactions with the boys sometimes left me feeling defeated, exhausted, or inadequate.
As an adult I have been able to define more of the larger issues from my young school shop days that only presented themselves as small, everyday, that’s-just-how-it-is scenarios. When you are the only female in a room full of male woodworkers, strange things happen. You walk to the table saw, a machine you have worked at time and again, just to make a simple crosscut. As you take the crosscut sled from the wall where it’s hanging, place its rails in the miter slots and start lining up your cut, you notice something – eyes. You will be kept track of, like a kid on training wheels who has just been set loose for the first time. Except this isn’t your first time, nor your hundredth. And still that isn’t good enough.
Even if I am in a position of struggling through a concept, I appreciate men who let me struggle without trying to help me. To me that says that they can see my capabilities, and know that whatever the struggle is, I am fully competent to handle it myself. It also shows they value my emotional integrity, knowing that if there is a point in which I do need help, I will ask for it. I want to see more men and women speak and act from a place where they recognize the strengths in those attributes.
My shop teacher taught me to dig deeper. Did it hurt mostly when someone else said or did something condescending to me, or did I feel that way more because I didn’t tell them that it hurt me and that I wouldn’t stand for it? It was a turning point when I realized both things were true, and that even though I could not control what other people were saying to me, I was still going to stand up for myself in the hopes that they could also see how they were contributing to a storyline that need not be continued. I knew deep down that I was fully capable of quite a lot, and it’s amazing what happens when you let on that you feel this way about yourself. People change their minds about you when you change your mind about yourself. But respect should also be something we are willing to bestow upon more people than just those who are willing to put up a fight. How we treat those who are not in a position of power says a great deal about our own character.
Once at an event I mentioned that I owned a Gibson SG ( a guitar) and some guy said “do you play it?” Yes I said, I do. I have not personally known as many women who play compared to the number of men, so I understand that its interesting and exciting to hear of it. Genuinely, I do, because I have the same reaction, with slightly different words attached. Then he said this, “You mean you could pick it up and just start playing it and get in front of people and play a whole song?” to which my dry wit responded, “no, I just put it in the corner and look at it and then tell people I own one and can’t play it” and I let a wry smile escape from the side of my mouth.
I wanted to convey that I was still in the mood to poke a little fun, but also not ever in the mood to have to prove my worth when it didn’t need explaining. Thankfully, he got where I was going with that and laughed and kind of nodded his head in a non-verbal “touché”. “Do you ask every guy you meet who owns a guitar if he plays it?” Nope, you got me there, he said and shook his head while chuckling a bit. Then we immediately moved on to a jovial, light-hearted banter because I think we both felt heard and better yet, even a bit better understood. You see what I’m saying here? My words weren’t enough the first time, and I needed to prove myself – to HIM, while also finding the right balance so he didn’t feel threatened or attacked. This is a developed and difficult skill to not only build, but implement effectively in the moment. Mind you, I was also showing him how to sharpen a plane blade and he started listening a little more closely after that.
This is not just an issue I think men are responsible for fixing, because women have a role in this revolution as well. How we play into these gender roles, how we choose silence, how we choose complacency, are all methods of perpetuating stereotypes we are not necessarily interested in fulfilling.
My friend Sarah Marriage, an incredibly skilled furniture maker and creator of A Workshop of Our Own, a female and non-binary woodworking shop in Baltimore recently had this to say:
“ There really are barriers and divisions that exist in our woodworking world. They are not intentionally constructed by the men of woodworking. That’s not what we’re saying. They were slowly constructed and solidified over many generations. And those barriers have been coming down. It’s the best time in history to be a woman in our field, but the barriers do still exist. And we can make choices to ignore the barriers and be okay with the status quo because we weren’t the ones who created it in the first place, or we can make choices to shine a light on the barriers to entry, and work around them, and change them.”
Telling me to calm down, or that I’m overreacting is a perpetuation, the easy route of putting the kibosh on things that make people feel uncomfortable. It’s also the exact opposite way to stifle my words. That tactic doesn’t work for me, and for many women I know, because I can see beyond the fear that frequently accompanies change, and I can see beyond the uncertainty of unprecedented gender equality. Telling me things I’ve been told time and time again isn’t going to work this time because I can see a better future for myself, a future that I will do my best to help shape.
When I am among women there is an immediate, collective sense of safety because I know that is quite possible they have felt the same fear of being in a vulnerable position to the unwanted approach of men. It is a reality I wish every single day that I did not have to face. Of course not every man will be a part of this ugly statistic, but I pray for more of them to seek this distinction. Just as with any other instance in my life, I am always always aware of where I am, if nightfall is approaching, and if I’m alone, particularly in the presence of only men. It is impossible for me to speak for all women, but I’d dare to say that every single one of use has felt this.
Sadly, these gut feelings of being unsafe are not confined to dark alleyways late at night, and they can be just as scary when they are in the light of day. I am young, I am tall, and I am female. All three things I have no control over, and yet attributes I am constantly aware of for reasons I should not have to deal with. I have been asked on dates while trying to convey my love for hand tools, I have been “accidentally” touched multiple times by the same person and then winked at, I have been reeled in by a hard handshake that was forced into an unwanted hug where the man buried his face in the crook of my shoulder, rubbed my neck with his face and told me that I smelled so good (its actually happened twice).
And then there are the countless, countless occasions when my gut tells me I can’t even be nice to some men, to remain as neutral as possible, almost to the point of devoid, when I feel that even giving eye contact is enough of a gesture for them to perhaps misconstrue my intentions. After innumerable times of unsuccessfully attempting to prove myself wrong in these situations, I will always trust my gut over any chance that I may offend someone by not being as nice as I would like to be, or as they think I should be. And I hate that I have to check it, to check my personality. I am a strong woman, physically, emotionally, and verbally. But it is a very harsh reality, and I have learned that I will be placed, perpetually, in positions where obscenities, prejudice, unwanted advances, and harassment of many forms will be pointed in my direction and I will be expected to respond with tact, grace, and composure.
The expectations are limitless, unattainable and aggravating. What I ask more people to do is to examine how they contribute to these constructions, how they assist in continuing to build a maze of complex and conflicting rules and why such a thing exists when it is so unbelievably unreasonable. This is the nuanced form of gender inequality, the nasty form that becomes hard to identify in everyday conversation, let alone an issue that one can easily sink their teeth into as it’s happening. Ignoring, dismissing, and denouncing its existence is a form of attempted control within the very fear of losing it.
The largest thing I feel I need to explain about these types of situations is the skill set I have developed and used, and one that most women have — that which involves dancing on a very thin line in touchy situations, or really any situation at all. Too assertive and you’re aggressive and unreasonable. Too understanding or accommodating and no one will take you seriously and you will surely be bulldozed in a heartbeat.
I must, at every turn, be courteous and kind while also being assertive enough that I am not seen as a target for verbal, physical, or even sexual punishment. If I happen to do an exceptional job of navigating a tough situation in spite of being treated like less than, I have found that is not received kindly among some men. I must attempt to identify, very quickly, how to judge a man’s character, much how I would any person’s character, but in this instance if I don’t succeed I may face the wrath of a slighted man, the consequences of which can, and have, manifested in many ugly forms.
The expectations are so high that I also feel the constant threat that being too assertive will be labeled as being unprofessional, even if its in an attempt to defend myself in a situation where I am unsure of my safety. Even when writing this, the thing I found most difficult was conveying my experiences in such a way that people would still want to listen. My tone and my delivery here today are very purposeful because I see this as the beginning of a discourse, not a platform on which to condemn the people I speak of in my stories or to repackage my anger and distaste of my experiences and throw them back in the direction of anyone willing to listen. That cycle is not one in which I am interested in recirculating, so getting to the place where I think we are all capable of being is going to take a different course of action. I want to be someone ANYONE feels like they could approach, and ask questions, start a dialogue and even respectfully disagree with.
Its not that we don’t all, men and women alike, face injustices and unfairness in our lives, because men have also had an unfair list of expectations thrust upon them. Simply stating that women have had a particular set of challenges to face in male-dominated industries is not at all my attempt to take away from any plight of any other group in existence. It is that women face these at an unrelenting pace, in a society that attempts to stifle our words, our actions, and the very things that make us women. It isn’t equal, and it hasn’t been equal for a very long time. The way we work towards identifying, understanding, and achieving that equality is by opening ourselves up to hearing about these experiences and making sure that we are all a part of squelching the deeply entrenched, and sometimes devilishly nuanced forms of discrimination. We start by asking women to come and speak, like Tom has done here, we ask ourselves to come and sit down and be willing to be here, and believe!, the experiences that real women face, and we work to identify those prejudices within ourselves, even as evolved as we may feel we are.
I want to be clear, though. I am not here to tell men that they are horrible, and that they should be walking on glass around women in the woodworking world. Or even that they are incompetent. I don’t think that at all. I think men are capable of a lot, but I want them to expect more from themselves.
My objective is not to pounce on anyone who even dares speak to me in a way I don’t like, but it is important for me to set boundaries and let people know that I expect more. Tact, kindness, and honesty work wonders in these tricky situations. I do not always succeed, just as others don’t always succeed in conveying what they mean. Creating an atmosphere where people are afraid to approach me because of my reaction is not a healthy environment conducive to conversation. I want to become more proficient in fostering a space where people feel ok to make mistakes, including myself, and feel like even if I call them out on something, or vice versa we can still continue our conversation. We have all misspoken, and we will all misspeak at some point in the future, but as we know from woodworking, we must choose how we learn from our mistakes and carry on. It is a difficult and brave act to choose this kind of path, and I would like to change the tone of how these types of exchanges are perceived.
I do not see myself as something entirely different from a male woodworker, and I don’t particularly like making the distinction between them and myself. I don’t think it’s extraordinary what I am doing, because I think it is perfectly normal and perfectly usual for a female such as myself to be woodworking. It is hard for me to reconcile a world, a straight, male-dominated woodworking world that on the whole does not understand me as its equal. Listen to that. Hear that. I’m not saying that you have to agree, or really even understand everything I am saying, but please respect it. Agreeing, understanding, and respecting are not one in the same.
I want to see the day when there is no need for woman-specific woodshops, classes, or distinctions. My work today reflects how I feel about many disciplines, fields of study, expectations and boundaries. I seek inspiration from anything and everything around me, understanding that even the most seemingly insignificant things are capable of ushering in new ideas, if only I’m ready for them to. How I perceive the world influences what I put into it, with my work, my words, and my actions. I am a woman, and a woman who happens to also be a woodworker.
Feminism is a word that in itself has garnered a bad reputation, assuming it demands special treatment for women. In any other instance, the tenets on which feminism are built are typically called common decency. And really, thats all I’m asking for.