When I was at InfoComm in early June, I visited the booth of a well-known pro audio manufacturer to check out its new gear. While I was getting an in-depth explanation of the latest and greatest from one of the folks I know there, someone visiting the booth interrupted us to ask about a piece of equipment. The thing was, the guy asked me and not the woman who was sharing her knowledge, who was clearly the one who worked there, complete with the company logo on her shirt.
She pointed him toward another staffer and we went on talking, but that dismissive moment stuck in my mental craw for the rest of the day, as it illustrated that no matter how many strides pro audio has made towards getting women better represented in its ranks, whether in manufacturing, the studio or live sound, it’s still a fairly guy-centric industry, often with a mindset to match.
That women aren’t well-represented in pro audio is not exactly news, but it’s one thing when this kind of discussion plays out in the pages of a specialized trade magazine like PSN; it’s another thing entirely when the topic starts to crop up in mainstream media—which is something that’s been happening in recent times.
Last fall, a Chicago Tribune article, “Women roar onstage but barely exist in the sound booth,” profiled Mary Gaffney, the audio supervisor for Chicago Public Media, using her story as a jumping-off point to explore why only an estimated 5 percent of sound engineers are women. Name-checking organizations like Soundgirls.org and Women’s Audio Mission—which are doing great things to expand women’s presence in the industry—it also quoted producer/engineer Steve Albini, who noted, “Any time you take half the people, cut half the potential participants out of a scenario, then you’re half as likely to have your chance of finding the best person for the job or finding the unique insight….”
That view was echoed some weeks later when esteemed critic Ann Powers weighed in on Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album on npr.org, noting, “Women artists have, for much of the past decade, defined the face of pop, but they still aren’t trusted as custodians of its voice.” Powers may have been commenting on the performer side of things instead of the production side, but as more artists increasingly have a foot in each camp, the end result of that line of thinking can be spotted in “Pop for misfits,” a New Yorker piece profiling Grimes, a new artist signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation who is her own producer/engineer. In the article, she remarked, “I can’t use an outside engineer, because if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, ‘Oh! That guy just did it all.’”
Cynics might dismiss Grimes’s comment as a rising artist’s play to differentiate herself from the competition, invoking her studio knowledge in order to imbue an added layer of authenticity. As it happens, I think it was sincere, but more importantly, it inadvertently highlights one of the few upsides to the decline of the major studios over the last 15 years. The rise of the private/personal recording space and the increasingly lower threshold of entry to acquire gear has helped democratize (to some extent) recording so that a wider variety of people can gain the knowledge necessary to work ‘behind the glass’—even if that glass is often a computer screen these days.
Concurrent with that has been the growth of audio schools, which has surely brought more people from all walks of life into the pro audio world, as the traditional framework of schooling is likely a more broadly welcoming (and clearly delineated) environment to learn in than the loose apprentice system that the schools have largely supplanted.
For those who are already in the audio world, the Audio Engineering Society, InfoComm, NAMM and numerous other organizations have held workshops and networking events for women in pro audio for years. They’ll surely keep holding them for some time to come, too; change is underway and happening, but it’s taking its time.