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Audio Engineering Society joins forces with UN gender equality campaign HeForShe

The Audio Engineering Society (AES) UK held a panel night at the University of York in February to discuss the gender imbalance in the audio industry

On February 22, 2018, the AES UK hosted an event at the University of York on ‘gender equality and the audio industries’, in conjunction with the United Nations’ HeForShe campaign. I approached the organisation of the event with a sense of huge responsibility and spent several days wondering what I should say in my introductory speech. After days of thinking I decided to tell the truth: that I wished there was no need for this sort of event. I was standing there with five fabulous audio experts and instead of asking them about their wonderful work in the field, we were discussing a basic human right. But, we still have so much work to do in terms of equality, so, of course, there is a need for this and similar events to tackle issues on gender equality.

The HeForShe campaign was launched by the UN in 2014, with an incredibly moving speech by actor Emma Watson. HeForShe invites everyone to get involved with gender equality: it isn’t a woman’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue – it’s about human rights.

Only 5% of AES members are female, so it seemed appropriate to align ourselves with a campaign that invited everyone to get involved. Charlie Slee (former chair of AES UK and head of Big Bear Audio) and I have been working on the campaign since April 2017 when we started approaching the audio community asking them to make a public commitment to gender equality by signing the HeForShe pledge. The pledges allow us to show the world that we are committed to change and encourage others to do the same.

Our event included a panel session with Jude Brereton (senior lecturer in Audio and Music Technology – University of York); Liz Dobson (senior lecturer in Music Technology – University of Huddersfield); Barkley McKay (touring and session musician and tutor – Leeds Beckett University); Emmanuel Vaas (senior lecturer in Professional Studies and Music Business – Leeds College of Music) and Kat Young (PhD student in binaural audio applications – University of York).

The panel discussed reasons behind the pronounced gender imbalance in the audio industries. Issues raised included the lack of visibility of women in audio advertising – why is it always a male hand reaching for a fader on a console when advertising mixing desks? Small changes in advertising from manufacturers could make a huge difference.

All our panellists agreed on their responsibility as educators, including making it clear that sexist comments are unacceptable, and speaking up. We need to have responsible conversations on equality with our students. University is about opening up people’s minds to new ways of seeing the world; making them aware of gender issues is part of our role.

Our central question was how we can work on tangible actions towards equality. Event organisers were invited to reflect on their choices when inviting speakers; speakers were encouraged to rethink their participation in male-only panels (manels); everyone was encouraged to speak up.

We also invited all our participants to tell us how they were going to change the world of audio by writing their thoughts on Post-It notes. Some comments included: “Believe in your abilities and don’t be scared to fail. If you have an idea for a project, don’t be scared to start doing it, because there’s nothing holding you back,” and “Challenge prejudices and everyday sexism.”

I was moved by the large number of students that approached me to tell me how inspired they were by the panellists. I was also thrilled to receive emails from audio companies asking what positive actions they could take towards equality.

These discussions are key. Many people get defensive when gender equality issues are raised, taking the subject personally. We all need to learn to listen. It’s about all of us taking responsibility for our actions. If you are unsure how to promote equality, just ask.

A few weeks ago I had the honour of becoming the first female chair of the AES UK. With power, they say, comes great responsibility, and that responsibility is about improving the world of audio engineering, and this needs to include work on equality. Our recent event at Leeds Beckett university, Up Your Output, was a testimony of our commitment to equality. It had a wonderful line-up of speakers, including Leslie Gaston-Bird, Katie Tavini, Marta Salogni, Kate Hopkins, Ann Charles and Eloise Whitmore.

In addition to this, we awarded three HeForShe bursaries for the event thanks to Big Bear Audio, which will also cover the student membership to the AES.