Women's History Month - Women in Media: Lydia Shamah
For International Women’s Day, we spoke to Lydia Shamah, commissioning editor at Audible, about what the day means to her, why there aren’t more women in senior roles in the media and much more.
Could give us an intro to you and your career and kind of where you work and what you do?
So, currently, I'm the Commissioner of scripted content at Audible, which means I commission all of our multicast episodic series, so anything that is not a book and not a play is me. So that means that I work with a lot of agents or writers, or producers. I decide what we're making, and then I kind of oversee the whole process with a lot of very talented people doing a lot of the work, but hopefully my vision is kind of happening across from beginning to end. So that's what I do at Audible.
Does International Women's Day kind still matter - what impact does it have on the work you do from a representation perspective?
I'm not sure the International Women's Day registers for me a tonne. But in my work, it feels very much like it's something that is important to marketing and merchandising. So we're not necessarily commissioning against it. I think we're constantly commissioning women and women's stories. And then as we approach International Women's Day, marketing and merch will want to know “what do we have that is good to put against this day” - they'll use it as a hook to draw attention to that content. So, it is useful, it's useful enough, but not necessarily commissioning stuff or International Women's Day.
People think that women are still underrepresented in media as a whole, what's your personal view on why you think there aren't more women in senior roles across media, not just in the space that you work in?
It's an interesting one because coming from publishing, it's such a female-dominated space but that's still not true at the top. So I think it's so it's so evident in publishing particularly - how can you have an industry that is 80 plus per cent women, and all of the bosses are men? Something strange is happening there. And I think it's also interesting that publishing is this really female-dominated space. Then as we move into industries that are more financially lucrative like TV and film that starts falling away. So, again there's something weird happening there psychologically. Maybe it’s the values that we're placing on men and women's work. In this less financially profitable sector, there are lots of women, but the men are still the boss. In Film and TV there are fewer women but there’s more money. So there's something odd happening there. Personally, as a woman in media, I've not necessarily experienced it affecting my rise, but I think that's because I'm not yet at a stage in my career where I would be looking at those top jobs where it starts getting really really split. So, at my level, you're more kind of experiencing microaggressions and tiny biases, which maybe is what all adds up and affects the split up the top. It's super stark in publishing that it's the men who've risen to the top - why is that happening? Is it because those companies are owned by boards that are majority men, and that they have a big influence on that decision? Is there some kind of internalised misogyny within these very female companies that think yes the man is the right person for the job at the top? I'm not sure but I think it's, it's definitely, it's definitely a problem. Across publishing other entertainment areas too.
What do you think needs to be done about it?
Through the pandemic, I’ve been observing the discourse about the way that we live. This idea that the 40 hour workweek was built around a completely different economy and this idea that one person in your house stayed at home and dealt with home and one person went to work, and the one person going to work was enough to fund an entire household. And then now, we work in this way where two people have to go to work to just about fund one household and just about scrape by. Childcare is super expensive. So for me, I wish we could reevaluate the way that we work. Why does it have to be eight hours a day 40 hours a week? I think a lot of people in media actually work more than that there's a lot of reading outside of hours. Why is there not more things in place for child care when most of your employees probably have children? Because of the gender stereotypes about who takes on childcare and looking after your home and making that portion of your life work, I think that's what holds women back from those top jobs. I would really like to see companies lean into flexible work, providing child care. I think being a bit more humane to people would have a huge effect on gender equality at the top.
Could you just tell us a little bit about your thoughts on representation in media? Especially in the work that you do and why it's so important to you.
I think, as someone who makes content, we're making content for a wide audience. So, just off the bat, it doesn't make sense to me to make content that only represents a thin slice of that audience. So it makes fundamental sense from that perspective. It's also just more interesting. You don't want to make just the same content with the same point of view over and over again. And then obviously not to mention just the fact that all the bias and discrimination against people whose voices we don't usually hear is problematic. It hurts people actively. I think it has ramifications in the real world - fiction is a tool for empathy. And if you are seeing different people represented in different non-stereotypical ways, I think that will affect how you go about your life in the world. If you're seeing repeated bad representations of certain groups, that's going to affect how you feel about them in the real world. So I think it really does have a real-world impact and effect, beyond just that everyone deserves to be seen in media and what entertains them. The thing that worries me the most about media is the internal makeup of the teams who are attempting to make content that represents everybody. And I feel like if we could break down the gatekeeping and allowing different kinds of people to enter content companies and content teams. That's gonna improve the kinds of diverse content that we're making. It's going to make it a better and safer space for content creators. It'll just be a net good. So for me, that feels like a really fundamental core issue. It will take more time.
If you were talking to young women who were looking at you and thinking, “I want to do that but I'm not sure how accessible media is for me as a career because I don't see myself represented within organisations” what advice would you give them about getting into the type of role that you're doing?
I would say “it is for you”. The books, media, obviously we all consume these things, and I think the industry as a whole is becoming more aware that it is beneficial to have different points of view within their content teams. So I think now is a good moment to be putting yourself forward for this kind of work and saying “this is the different thing I bring to the table” and bring your passion. If it's about books or TV or film, just make sure you're watching a lot, you're reading a lot, you're able to talk about it passionately. Then search out those opportunities and I know there's that big stat that we're probably all aware of that men apply for jobs that they seem under-qualified for and women will only apply for jobs they seem overqualified for. I think just like remembering that fact is vital so when you come across these opportunities, what does it hurt to put yourself out there and try? I also think for things like publishing and media there are a lot of social media communities. There's a lot of accessible conversation happening that you can insert yourself into and get to know people in that way. Then you’ll just kind of be in the mix. You'll know people, they'll recognise your name, and you'll hear about opportunities as they come up.
Before the start of our conversation, you told me about a couple of pieces of work that you've produced in the last year or so that you're really proud of that you think are fantastic from a representation point of view. Do you want to give those things a quick plug now?
The first one is a series called Hell Cats by Carina Rodney. It's an action-adventure series about the real-life, historical figures of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were pirates. It’s a traditional pirate action-adventure romp, but it's also super queer. So it's not just Ann and Mary who have a beautiful queer relationship, there's all types of different love happening through that series that I think is really gorgeous. And then there's also a lot of pirate high jinks. Tower Hall is another one which is a horror series. Sour Hall by Laura Kirwan Ashman, who is an amazing writer. The series is about an interracial lesbian couple who moved to a farmhouse haunted by a boggart, which essentially means it's haunted by fear itself. So, it's all about kind of unpacking trauma, and learning to kind of deal with your trauma and find peace with it, rather than trying to run from it, but through a distinctly black female queer point of view. Laura's calls herself a “hope punk writer”, so that's quite a subversive approach to horror. She takes all these tropes in horror that we're used to seeing and hating and turns them on their head. I like to say it's horror with healing. I'm super proud of those two.