Despite a global pandemic, the last 12 months have proven that women continue to thrive even in the most difficult circumstances. The never-ending list of women's impactful achievements includes Professor Sarah Gilbert designing the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, Swati Mohan landing the Perseverance rover on Mars and Kamala Harris becoming the first female vice president of the United States. Each of these achievements demonstrates how women continue to innovate and push boundaries in traditionally male-dominated industries.
From politics to medical science, women are challenging patriarchal structures and workplace inequalities every day, confronting bias and demanding change both individually and as a collective. This determination is honoured in this year’s International Women’s Day campaign, which encourages all women to #ChooseToChallenge in their own lives. In celebration of the cause, we asked photographer Mariana dos Santos Pires to photograph some of the inspiring women she knows who challenge norms every day in their jobs and we spoke to them about the difficulties they encounter working in male-dominated fields, as well as their hopes for the future of their chosen industries.
Chenai Nduru, 22, is a freelance art director currently based in London.
She has a background in film and television studies, also working in other formats such as music videos and photoshoots.
She has a background in film and television studies, also working in other formats such as music videos and photoshoots.
"I came from a background of studying film and TV at both college and university so naturally the ideal job for me was going to be in those fields. I’m quite a visual person so I was really drawn to art direction because I love paying attention to small details when I watch something, whether that's a film or a music video. Art direction is something that is so collaborative so it's the perfect combination of what I love the most about both film and TV.
Given that the industry is very male-dominated, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding the confidence to believe that I belong in the room just as much as anyone else. It can be incredibly intimidating, walking onto a set and being able to see that you’re the only woman present and then on top of that being the only Black person, which can really break down your confidence in your own abilities. It means there’s always added pressure to make a good impression. You start to kind of doubt yourself a little bit and start to feel like you’ve got a lot to prove because you’re the one that stands out the most. A big part of the job is being able to communicate effectively, especially when putting your own ideas out there, so that pressure can be so difficult when you don’t even have the confidence to believe that you have a right to be there.
One thing that you don’t really see a lot of in the industry is the idea that you should encourage and support other women. Traditionally we’ve all been taught to see each other as competition and this is obviously very damaging. I’m a strong believer in building other women up and I don’t think people realise the power of forming a good network of other women around you. Where I can, I always try to collaborate with other women who are in other creative fields, because it never hurts to support someone else’s achievements.
One of the things I’ve found really helpful whenever I find myself doubting my own creative ability is to remind myself that you are supposed to be there. As cliché as it sounds, you really do have to remind yourself that literally every person, regardless of gender, will make a mistake and when you do it doesn't make you stupid or make people think you are not good at your job or even diminish what you know. I spent so much time really internalising the idea that if people saw me make a mistake, they wouldn’t think I was good at my job and it would lessen my chances of ever being hired in the future, which isn't true."
Sahra-Isha is a researcher, writer and advertising freelancer. She is a running coach and founder of ASRA Club, a safe and inclusive space centring Muslim women in sports with the aim to unlock their inner athletes.
"I've always had a love for writing and research, however, I never really saw myself stepping into the sporting world. I simply saw that there was a need for an inclusive running space and that inspired me to create a pathway into it. My love of working with my community and creating safe spaces for them made me realise there was a need for us to be in the field too, which is how ASRA Club first started.
Working in a male-dominated field means I've often had to prove why I'm in the industry and prove my ability to create the work that I do. Even when I’m on the running track, at times it can be very male-dominated and for a split second, intimidating. But I realised quite early on that I deserve to be in this space just as much as anyone else. I decided that instead of trying to fit in with such male-heavy running clubs, groups and brands, I would create my own space and work with groups that align with my values or the values of the communities I am part of. When I started ASRA, the most important aim was that any woman who came to our sessions, workshops or events would not have to explain their reason for being here or have to prove anything. You can simply be there because you share our interest in running, wellness and sisterhood.
I feel that I challenged my industry by creating physical spaces for us to run in. There is a form of ignorance faced when you are a Black Muslim woman or WOC, whether that be in the sports world, advertising world or even academia. Especially as a young person, at times it feels you need to prove yourself. But I had to question why I needed to prove my ability or skills to anyone. I know what I'm capable of achieving and having self-belief can take you far, we don't always need to be fighting for an industry that doesn't want to accept us. There will come a time when they will need to accept us but until inclusivity is understood and implemented across the board in these industries, it's about us creating spaces and boundaries for ourselves and our own peace of mind.
To any women thinking of entering into a male-dominated field, know that you deserve to be in that space just as much as anyone else. Your voice, ideas and presence matter. There's strength in growing with others by your side, so find a group of people that you feel comfortable with. It can get really tiring at times so remember to protect your space, honour your voice and understand that everything you are doing is for a reason and no one can take it away from you."
Djenaba aka Damsel Elysium, 20, is a visual and auditory artist based in London. They craft improvisational compositions using double bass and violin, layering contrasting melodies, drones and textures. Djenaba also creates photography and art.
"I entered into the art world because that’s what my soul wanted. I'd tried to avoid it many times and fit into a box of strategy but my art ultimately speaks larger than my voice. Working in a male-dominated space means that I have often been silenced in an indirect way. They don’t usually realise it but certain things they say or do isolate me, which can be difficult.
I’m quite a quiet person but I will always challenge this by making sure that I have a space, a room and some sense of authority in the environment I work in. If I’m not being heard I make sure to push myself into the conversation, which I think can be useful for all women working in male-dominated industries."
Lisa Elde is a London-based singer-songwriter, artist and textile designer. Her music is described as genreless, a palette of soul, indie, jazz and rock, influenced by her mixed heritage. Her main musical focus is to explore psychological states and the journey of healing.
"I chose to enter the creative industry because it was a place where I could express my ideas using artistic mediums like music and abstract art to challenge social injustice. Working in a male-dominated industry has often made it hard for me to be taken seriously, particularly when I have offered up valuable ideas and they fail to get acknowledged practically.
But I choose to challenge these barriers by maintaining my self-respect and by speaking my mind without hesitation. I would advise other women in similar situations to stand by their own convictions and persevere in the face of adversity because while change comes slowly, it happens when enough women challenge unacceptable practices."
Jesley, 21, is a music producer, DJ and engineer from London. Influenced by the sounds she heard growing up in the Philippines, her projects span all different areas in the music industry.
"Music production has always felt like second nature to me. I learned guitar from an early age, which made me interested in songwriting and it felt like music production was the only way I could really express myself. I started writing pop-punk songs in a band from the age of 12 and I didn’t even realise I was producing tracks until someone called me a producer. It was such an amazing feeling.
The biggest challenge I face working in a male-dominated industry is having to prove my worth in every room that I enter. Societal norms are changing within the music industry but there are still a lot of people who don’t seem to understand the extent of their actions. It sometimes feels like mansplaining, undermining and backhanded compliments are just part of a 'day in the life' when you’re a femme-presenting producer, but they really shouldn’t be.
I feel like my existence in the music industry itself works to challenge this narrative. Being a queer, working-class person of colour means there are always glass ceilings to break. I’ve always tried to support up-and-coming femme and non-binary producers/artists and try to give advice or even teach those who want to learn music production or DJing.
My one piece of advice is to always build a community of genuine people and remember to stay true to yourself and your values. I try my best to not let anything get to my head and remember that I'm doing music because I love it, not for anyone else."
Nooriyah, 26, is a DJ, radio host and filmmaker based in London. Her work focuses on upbeat popular records infused with Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) sounds. She currently hosts two radio shows as a MENA specialist DJ at Foundation FM and Plus 1 Radio, while producing her own music that pays homage to her heritage.
"When I think of first entering into my industry, I feel like it chose me. Every Wednesday we’d go to my grandma's house and I'd always have my earphones in and everyone thought I was the rudest kid ever. As an adult though, I realise I chose it because music gives me that rare motivating type of joy. I work hard at it but it still gives me a huge sense of freedom.
Both music production and DJing are predominantly male occupations and that naturally makes it more difficult to thrive in certain situations. Sometimes it's shown through resistance when women are being considered for headlining performances or the lack of female representation on top DJ lists or even having your technical skills belittled.
I choose to challenge these industry issues by being very loud and grounded in the desire to champion and uplift voices from across the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region and the diaspora. No matter the medium, all my work showcases the incredible diversity and beauty of MENA music. MENA people have been hugely criticised, stereotyped and incorrectly depicted in media for decades, which is why I want to highlight our incredible contributions to music and our love and passion for the arts through my radio shows, films and performances.
Paying homage to my heritage is not an easy task in an industry that enjoys supporting the familiar. For women wanting to enter into the industry, I’d encourage them to think about entering the music industry to take and make space. Stand tall in your passion and don’t forget to hold and pull the hands of other women."
Stafi Samaki is a 20-year-old photographer and casting assistant based in south London. She specialises in portraiture and documentary photography, shooting on both digital and instant film. She is also the founder of Black in Britain, a visual platform highlighting Black voices and history in the UK.
"I never knew what I wanted to do when I was young. I always thought I wasn't very smart academically but then I found out that I had dyslexia at the age of 19. I was first introduced to photography when I started interning at a studio, which was perfect for me as I'm both a creative person and a visual learner. By the age of 16 or 17 I was starting to cast my own shoots, which introduced me to a whole new world. I love both casting and photography because the industries bounce off each other really well and I get to be creative in different ways, which is really cool.
Working in a male-dominated industry isn't without its difficulties though, and I have been left feeling like I'm not good enough and that I need to work twice as hard to get respect and be noticed. I used to work myself to the point of mental and physical burnout, where I wasn't eating or sleeping properly because I was constantly working and not giving myself time to rest. I also worked as an assistant at a studio where I always had guys ask me if I needed help changing the background colours which was really frustrating and gave me the impression that they thought I couldn't do my job, which made me feel really insecure.
If I had any advice for people wanting to enter a male-dominated field, I would say to create spaces and communities where you feel comfortable. Make sure to support other women, be confident, speak up, stay positive and don't let yourself burn out."
Rebecca Dharmapalan, 25, is an intersectional feminist whose praxis is rooted in the global struggle for liberation. Rebecca is a theorist, human rights legal scholar and filmmaker. While she is currently based in Oakland, California, her work lives through the diaspora. Her first feature film, The Three Performances of Serendip, will be released on the festival circuit in 2021.
"I made the choice to enter the field of filmmaking at the age of 16 so that I could use the medium to challenge dominating narratives perpetuated in the mainstream media and communicate my innermost thoughts and feelings about the world around me.
Working in a male-dominated industry, I've found myself in multiple situations with cis male collaborators where I've had to look misogyny dead in the eye and stand up for myself. It's been incredibly uncomfortable at times. I might come across as a hard-headed Capricorn but I'm actually quite reasonable, compassionate and even emotional when it comes to facing microaggressions. Learning how to assert myself and my intentions has been a crucial step in developing my personal feminist praxis and also establishing myself as a legit director.
Thankfully, we are seeing a huge shift in filmmaking spaces as of 2021 and women of colour are finally getting the recognition that they deserve in the industry. As an Eelam Tamil avant-garde filmmaker, I have found that traditional film genres don't fully capture the nuanced stories that I'm telling in my work. I'm actively challenging this by both simply existing and creating film in a way that isn't palatable, obvious or even genre-specific.
Working on my feature film for four years allowed me the time to engross myself in research, think about creating a long-lasting archive and establish what Eelam Tamil diaspora filmmaking can look like because it simply hasn't been done before. My advice for women who are entering a cis male heteronormative white supremacist industry is to go at it with full force, create your own spaces, find your team and pave your own way. If you find yourself hitting roadblocks, reassess and move forward. With the right team, you can accomplish anything."