“I think women are being welcomed into the laser industry as equals.” – Roberta McHatton

As part of Women’s History Month, MONDO-DR shines a light on members of the International Laser Display Association, telling the story of their career in the laser industry. In the first of a series of interviews, Roberta McHatton, LSO (Laser Safety Officer), owner of Laser Safety Services discusses her career in lasers.

What was your entrance point into the laser industry, where and when did you start? 

My first job was with a company named Laser Fantasy International (LFI) in 1995. My husband and I were on the road in the USA for three years performing educational and entertainment laser shows for schools. After three years the company approached me to be their Laser Safety Officer, and eventually promoted me to be the Director of the Production Department. LFI supported my efforts to be involved with standard development – a critical aspect of my professional career, and I am still an active member of ANSi z136 Safe Use of Lasers, SAE G10T Aerospace Recommended Practices, and Event Safety Alliance.

What are the difficulties that women face in the laser industry? 

I feel very fortunate to report that I have not encountered the typical challenges many women experience in their profession. LFI never hesitated to promote me to a leadership position. I would have to say that some of the male colleagues who worked ‘under’ me, so to speak, had a hard time accepting that I was their boss, but in time they came to appreciate that my role was to support their efforts in the field. I openly admitted that I did not have their technical skills, which made it essential that they oversee actually producing the shows while I handled project management. There was some resentment, but in the long run, they learned to appreciate my role. While I anticipated issues within the standard committees, where most fellow committee members have higher education degrees and years of experience compared to myself, I found myself welcomed into the work we were doing. Not only was I a woman in primarily a man’s world, but I represented laser entertainment; an industry of concern to laser safety specialists. Several members became my mentors, from surprising industries such as the Department of Defence and NASA.

What has been the secret of your success? 

The secret of my success was to never pretend to know what I did not know. I was always willing to learn and apply myself to the task of becoming knowledgeable in my field. When it came to managing my staff, whenever I was in the field with them, I recognised the lead technician was the person in charge and I would do whatever task they assigned me, which often meant doing hard labour such as coiling hoses that we had to use back in the day. Doing so helped me gain their respect as their day-to-day manager.

What is your advice to women who want to succeed in the laser industry?

Honestly, I think women are being welcomed into the laser industry as equals. I would suggest making sure you are getting equal compensation. Otherwise, learn from others, and don’t be shy to present your ideas or engage actively in whatever your role is. And do take initiative rather than hanging back and waiting to be asked.

How important is it to you that an association such as the ILDA exists? 

ILDA is a vital association for the laser entertainment industry as an opportunity to collaborate with fellow colleagues who share a passion for bringing such a unique special effect to any production. What we do is unique and highly specialised. Through ILDA we can share ideas, and help each other with technical issues or safety concerns. Best of all we have an annual conference where we celebrate our industry with each other culminating in an awards banquet where our work is acknowledged by fellow laserists who truly appreciate what it takes to produce award-winning work.