“We need to talk about how she disrespected me.”
The large man who does social media at my company has run over and cut off the productive discussion between myself, the marketing director, company manager, and the entertainment director, my boss.
“You need to learn respect.”
I have been living and working in Dubai for nearly a month. In a country ranked by the UN in the bottom 5 as “not free”, I am a young, foreign, female stage manager leading a team of male technicians, surrounded by men on all sides. The only American in a sea of expats from the UK and the Middle East.
Despite a bit of boundary testing my first few days, I have yet to experience any blatant sexism from my crew or superiors. We are a team and they trust my judgment. It is the most supportive work environment I have found in a long time. If it weren’t for the desert sand coating my stage, I’d forget I was in the Middle East, I’d forget there’s a reason I cover my shoulders and knees when I leave my apartment, I’d forget that my sex matters at all.
Until this man arrives.
He’s done this before. Come on stage without warning and demanded on photos and access. He was denied, I kicked him offstage for his attitude problem. He tried a bit harder to follow my rules this time. He stayed offstage, but was insistent and pulled me away from my work, messed up my schedule, and cornered my cast because his deadline was immediate. I owed him my full attention now, my own responsibilities would have to wait.
When my cast consented to work with him, I let them go. I ran back onstage to catch up my schedule and shouted back to him to please stay after. We need to talk about this. It cannot happen again.
This is my mistake. This is my disrespect. I raised my voice at him as I ran back.
My boss has gotten wind of this. In the time it takes me to launch my next show, there’s a group of my superiors waiting in the common area. We’re having an easy, productive conversation. Let’s figure out what was missed this time and how to fix it. That’s when this man bursts into our conversation, cuts me off, and demands that I be reprimanded and taught respect.
I know this fight very well and I know I’m alone in it. I am not a stranger to these comments. Nor am I a stranger to watching every man in the room look away with their mouths shut tight as I get reprimanded for the grave error of being female.
But I will not be quiet and I will not take it, not now and not ever again.
He starts to talk again, wagging a finger in my face. I take a breath and prepare to rip him apart when my boss puts a hand out forcing the finger-wagger backward.
“Whoa whoa whoa, mate. Stop. Do you know who you are talking to? You do know who she is, right? That here, where we stand, we all answer to her, right?”
I don’t know who is more stunned. Me, or the man who thought he had every man in the room on his side.
This is the first time in my decade in this field that I have not gone to bat alone.
“If we’re going to talk about disrespect, let’s talk about your disrespect for this stage, the cast, the schedule, and protocol. Let’s talk about your blatant disregard for the people managing this space. You're done here. Get the photos you need and go.”
And that ends the conversation. My boss changes the subject while the finger-wagger slinks away. Not once does he try again to get backstage for the remaining 5 months of the season.
It’s four months later when I find myself talking to the marketing director over coffee. He spent the weeks following the incident with his photographer tiptoeing around me and driving me crazy with his trepidation. It's as much a surprise to us as to our colleagues that despite our rocky start, we have become friends. When my mother visited, he complimented her on "raising a lovely daughter, but she's a beast. Lovely. But really. A beast." He also informed my boyfriend that he was brave for sleeping next to a terror.
But here we are drinking coffee on a Sunday afternoon talking about culture and our lives. We have discovered more similarities than differences which shocks us both.
He interrupts a comfortable silence to tell me "I wouldn't have been able to do it. What you did.”
"I know what the west thinks of the Middle East, especially Americans. The stereotypes, the rumors, and the expectations. You're a tiny, American woman used to a different environment. You knew absolutely no one, had no idea what to expect from us or from this job, and had no escape hatch if things went south. And I bet people were telling you all sorts of terrible things to expect here too. And still, you left New York City to live here in the Middle East for 6 months.
"And I admit, I go back and forth on thinking whether you are incredibly brave or absolutely insane."
I think about our first confrontations, the challenges, the hard work, the growth, and learning we've all done these last 5 months and grin at him over my coffee.
"Most definitely both."
Written by Katherine Elizabeth
Katherine (Kate) McCombs is a freelance stage manager, consultant, producer, and people manager. She can usually be found talking to strangers and collecting feminist t-shirts. Check out her website (and photos from Dubai!) at katherinemccombs.com or her personal musings at leraconteur.net.