It’s possible, too, that women aren’t going into audio because they don’t know these careers exist. When Gaston-Bird interviewed women in the industry about their careers, she found that the majority learned about their jobs by accident, by going to shows and talking to people who work with bands. (This awareness problem, to be fair, can apply to men as well.) But this still doesn’t explain why, when women do know about audio engineering, they tend to choose other career paths in music instead.
While there are few studies on the issue, the little data there is suggests this disparity starts young. In 2014, researchers at the University of Colorado, led by Gaston-Bird, asked 36 students (18 male, 18 female) at a Denver secondary school what music-related careers they were interested in. The results were divided along gender lines between technical and nontechnical careers. While both groups wanted to be artists, the girls were also interested in being sound designers, music therapists, songwriters, teachers, and composers. The boys wanted to work in sound design and mixing, electronic-music programming, audio software design, producing, and recording engineering.
Terri Winston, the executive director of WAM, says she believes women don’t go into audio partly because of how young girls are first exposed to technology. When women don’t play with tools or learn to build things as children, they can lack interest or confidence in using those skills as adults. “It’s not just our industry,” Winston tells me. “We have a very serious problem in this country in how we socialize women in technology and in leadership positions in general.”
Winston herself got to dodge this particular roadblock: Her father was a mechanical engineer who encouraged her to tinker with his equipment when she was growing up. At WAM, she tries to foster a similar sense of curiosity by exposing her students to different audio technologies in the “hope something sticks.” So far, it has: In 14 years, WAM has placed more than 400 women in sound-related jobs with companies like Dolby Laboratories, Pixar, Google, and Electronic Arts.
Once women secure jobs in audio, they can still grapple with sexist remarks, condescension, and unfair performance standards—as a recent discussion on the AES Facebook page illuminates. “This last 3 years I’ve spent designing and building a recording studio from scratch, and not a day has gone by where I haven’t experienced sexism,” one poster wrote. “I waste so much of my time on proving myself in ways that the men around me are never challenged on,” another said.
Emily Lazar is a mastering engineer who has been nominated for three Grammys and has worked with thousands of musicians, including Sia, David Bowie, and Björk. In an email, she explains that when she was coming up in her field in the ’90s she had few options for dealing with sexism at work. “If you did not just go along with a lot of the behavior, you would at least be excluded from sessions and your position threatened,” Lazar says. “I think the overt behavior has improved as of late. However, the underlying bias is still very much evident.”