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On sexism and audio engineering /
by Allison Smartt

Six techies, five men and one woman are playing cards backstage waiting for their performance to begin. The female techie says to one of the male techies, “Sexism is a huge issue in the workplace.” The male techie responds, “That’s still an issue?” Cue: Rimshot and facepalm.

Sadly, this joke is a real story from my seemingly bottomless treasure trove of ironic and sickening examples of sexism I’ve experienced as a female audio engineer. Typically, when I mention sexism in our workplace, the reaction is either of genuine surprise or uncomfortable disinterest.

My business card says “Production Professional,” In essence, I work in technical theater with a foundation and specialization in sound. Designing it, mixing it, making it work. Like my bio says, I run the gamut of genres: dance, theater, music, you name it. I've probably done at least one gig in it. I'm 25 and I've been working in tech for about 7 years.

In my short time in this line of work, I've had my fair share of sexist experiences, from shirtless comedians coming on to me in front of my suddenly and uncharacteristically silent boss to guitar techs propositioning me for sex while cornered in a dark, windowless equipment closet. But on the whole, it's not the obvious objectification and sexual come-ons that get me fired up. It's the more dangerous, seemingly benign, implicit sexism that is permeates the foundation of this industry.

Recently, while on tour at a college with MOM BABY GOD, I needed a ladder. After three other women’s requests were denied by the college’s Facilities department, I made a desperate phone call rattling off my professional credentials: member of labor union IATSE Local #232, Technical Director for Mount Holyoke College Dance Department, trained in ladder use and safety. Could I please have a 15’ A-Frame?

“That kind of ladder doesn’t exist,” said Butch, the man on the line. I sweetly and courteously inquired further. “There’s no such thing as a 15’ step ladder,” Butch told me.

A 15’ step ladder? I asked for an A-Frame! After Butch continued to insist, I realized Butch himself did not know the difference between an A-Frame and a stepladder. This does not stop him from delivering a 10’ stepladder and patronizingly exclaiming, “See, you didn’t a 15-footer! Good thing I brought this one.” Yes, Butch it is great that you didn’t bring what I asked for because a woman couldn’t have possibly been right! Your male narcissism saved me from being able to access all of the lights!

These instances of let-me-help-you's and let-me-teach-you-a-thing-or-two-little-lady's frustrate me to no end.

Recently, I expressed this frustration via Facebook in a status which commented on the lack of women and people of color in Front of House, a pro-audio magazine that features a lot of advertising, reviews and tech articles.

“I love reading the tech articles in Front of House, a pro audio magazine,” I wrote. “But I am consistently disappointed when I see that the entire staff is male. Every person highlighted in their ‘On The Move’ section (a/k/a notable promotions in audio companies around the world): white men. The 4 major Parnelli Awards went to white men. Please. Please. Put people of color in your magazine. Put women in your magazine.”

Then the commenting began.

“Could be that only 5% of the industry is female?” wrote one male commenter. “Can't say I have ever seen a single engineer come through the [local large venue] who wasn't a white male. It's hard to put people in the magazine that don't exist. I sincerely doubt the lack of diversity is exclusionary, simply an accurate reflection of reality. Until the industry itself becomes more diverse, artificially injecting it into their publication would be pandering.”

And then another:

Front Of House is a magazine that exists to sell ads, not change the world,” wrote a second male commenter. “Like it or not, it’s perfectly okay for an entity to exist without championing a cause, even if its a worthy one. Unless they are actively hurting minorities' chances at success in the industry, they aren't doing any harm...The women I work with in the industry are awesome at what they do, and to me, that's the best press they could ever get- having their colleagues respect their work.”

I'm a 25-year-old white female. Every job I've ever been hired to do, I interviewed with a white man. Every job I've ever had has been impacted by my whiteness and, for better or for worse, my gender. I've realized since this Facebook exchange that my real beef isn't with Front Of House. The ideas expressed by these two male colleagues of mine exemplify the real issues: the implicit racism and sexism of the industry, the defense and perpetuation of the status quo and the eagerness to deflect any criticisms against it.

I take serious issue with the premise that “doing no harm” is enough. Intentional or not, exclusion of diversity is a problem.

This disrespectfulness and underestimation of women in sound engineering is related to another problem in the US: the lack of women in math and sciences.

Last year, The US Census Bureau published a study on STEM related inequality. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

According to Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, the number of women working in STEM-related occupations has increased since the 1970s, but women are still significantly underrepresented in engineering and computer science, which account for more than 80 percent of STEM-related occupations. In fact, the study confirms that women’s representation in computer science has decreased since the 90s. “Among science and engineering graduated, men are employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women: 31 percent compared with 15 percent,” the study explains. “Nearly 1 in 5 female science and engineering graduated are out of the labor force, compared with less than 1 in 10 male science and engineering graduates.”

Why are there fewer women in these fields? Why are they experiencing less success than their male counterparts? Maybe the old adage is true: women actually have a natural aversion to math and science. Maybe their male counterparts are actually better?

Substitute 'math and science' with 'sound engineering'. The answer to all of those questions is still “NO.” The answer is bias.

Studies show there is significant bias that favors male science students as recipients of jobs, mentoring, and salary over their equal female counterparts. According to this 2012 Princeton University study, "a stark gender disparity persists within academic science … Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.”

Is it a coincidence that engineering fields have similarly low percentages of female employees (8.4% in 2012)? While other fields, like child care work, are comprised of 94.7% female employees?

There are differences in STEM fields and sound engineering. Sound engineers are highly skilled but don't absolutely require an advanced degree in physics or electrical engineering to work. The educational requirements for STEM fields are more rigorous.

Despite this, I think that if we imagine the root causes for these inequalities, they are the same: Lack of access. Lack of representation. Low encouragement from mentors and adults.

I’ve had great mentors in my field; they generously shared their time and expertise, which directly benefitted my career and me. I appreciate all of the professionals who have taken chances on me. However, it should come as no surprise that they were all men. And it wasn’t until a sexually threatening situation with one of these men did I feel the urge to research and reach out to specifically women in the field. As a result, I’ve made incredible professional and personal bonds with women like Amy Altadonna, Jess Greenberg, Jill BC DuBoff and Carolyn Wong to name a few. Organizations like Women's Audio Mission provide continuing sources of inspiration. (WAM is an organization “dedicated to the advancement of women in music production and the recording arts, a field in which women are critically under-represented,” reads their mission statement. It was “formed in 2003 in direct response to the economic and social inequity that women face in music production and the recording arts.”)

STEM fields have seen active and larger scale engagement in rectifying this issue because they are a “top concern” and lead to “improving the US economy and standard of living,” according to the aforementioned 2013 US Census study. Because of the economic value of STEM fields, money and time have been spent identifying when, how and why these inequalities occur.

Sound engineering, like many other fields under the arts umbrella, are deemed to have little such value. I doubt a government-funded study will ever be conducted to understand this issue in the industry.

In some cases, the limited opportunities for financial success might be a deterring factor for women who want to pursue sound engineering. But given the 15% employment rate, couldn't the same be said for women in STEM careers?

It all starts with access. How does one become a sound engineer? After seven years in the industry, it's all just variations on a theme: Dude is musician and/or in band. Dude probably plays guitar, bass or drums. Dude becomes interested in guitar pedals/amps/head amps/mics/kicks/DIs/sound gear. Dude becomes sound engineer.

The field of sound engineering is not only subject to the male-dominated nature of science and engineering, but also the male-dominated nature of the music industry in general.

Think back to all of those cool bands from your high school days. How many of those rock bands had super cool, freakishly talented flutists? Clarinetists? Now be real, how many girls did you know in high school who played electric guitar, bass and/or drums? Probably not very many considering how gendered instrument selection can be. Studies like this one discovered “children found the drums to be the most masculine and the flute to be the most feminine.” One of the authors, Walker, states, “the males in this study indicated that females should not play the drums because they have never seen a female actually play the drums; females said that males should not play the flute because they have never seen a male play the flute.”

At age 25, I still get surprised reactions when I tell people that in addition to clarinet and sax, I played bass.

So what is my problem exactly? The pitiful lack of effort on the part of one magazine to include more women and people of color? Kind of. The insensitivity and privileged ignorance of the two white men who posted on Facebook? Getting closer, but not quite.

I'm on fire because the thinly veiled racism and sexism exhibited by these men is pervasive and insidious. It is tolerated, perpetuated and encouraged not only in my industry but throughout workplaces in the U.S. And people's willingness to believe it's not a problem anymore because “feminism happened” or “you can't represent what doesn't exist” is just another way we numb ourselves to the injustices happening around us all the time. I exist.

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