I exhaled silently, basking in the deep silence of my mastering room. My reflection off the top of the black counter next to me peered back glassily. It was August of 2017 and I had just wrapped up the audio podcast on which I was guest speaking. Everything had gone well, but I felt like I’d botched it at the end. I’d been asked how men can be allies of women in audio, and choked.
My eyes darted across my velvet clad walls — it’d earned its nickname ‘the bordello room’ for a reason — hoping they might hold the answer for me. They didn’t.
If I could go back now, I would tell them: “Bow before me, for I am a unicorn!” because it turns out that as a woman in audio engineering, I am just as rare. As a resident engineer at Larrabee Studios, I am the only woman in the multi-room facility that is not in an administrative position.
I am a mastering engineer, sorceress-extraordinaire of the mysterious Dark Art and formerly-most-niche-gig-ever in music technology. Apparently you can now also make a career solely out of vocal tuning, so on behalf of Mastering Engineers worldwide I humbly hand over the trophy for most absurdly niche gig. Have I digressed?
If you’re unfamiliar with the process of recording a song or album, it’s like baking a cake. Tracking is akin to collecting and preparing all of the ingredients for the cake. Mix engineers do the mixing. A mastering engineer, depending on the mix engineer, has either to add some icing or bake the cake and decorate (this means either I’m just using a dash of EQ, or I get to dig in and do more work). Mastering engineers then send the cake to digital distributors, vinyl lacquer cutters, CD Printers (for the old school), and in recent years, cassette-deck kids insistent on the resurgence of cassettes (for people who make my blood boil). Digital distributors will take the cake and cut it into tiny, tiny pieces and smash them into something homogenized that destroys the nuance of gourmet baking. Those who like cassettes will take the cake and run it over with a car.
In recent months, I was invited to an event hosted by USC Annenberg entitled “Women In The Studio,” addressing the disparity between men and women engineers, songwriters, producers, and artists. I learned some unbelievable things there. I’m going to throw some numbers at you. You may want to pour yourself a stiff one.
Only 22.4% of artists are women.
Only 12.3% of songwriters are women.
Only 3% of audio engineers are women.
And only 2% of producers are women.
I told you I’m a unicorn. Women producers are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I expect to receive my honorary spiraled, glittering horn in the mail any day now. I’m looking at you, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Good luck finding your lucky charms.
When I trained as an assistant, administrative roles were also 50% of my job description. Despite repeated pleas as the years progressed to hire help, to allow me to transition into just mastering, administrative work remained part of my job until the day I left. I was there for seven years. Two people were hired to replace me. I say this only to point out that when women are allowed into the music industry, it is in an administrative capacity rather than a creative one, and I was not exempted from that.
I’m profoundly curious as to the breakdown specifically for tracking, mixing, and mastering engineers. It is mindlessly easy for me to rattle off a list of big-deal mix engineer men who exclusively mix, and next to impossible to do the same for women. How much further does our 3% plummet? And what about minorities? Women of color? Move over, abysmal. I need a drink.
In November 2017, #MeToo screamed across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. When the movement began, I was proud to see voices echoing across the planet, awed by the bravery of these women and the stories they felt strong enough to reveal. What I didn’t expect, however, was the tsunami of shock and surprise from men. How could something so ubiquitous be so surprising? I don’t know a single woman without a personal experience with sexual harassment or assault, or a woman who knows another woman without one. It was implausible to me that so many men could be so shocked by something this pervasive.
Over the course of several months, what began as anger became a valve tapping me into decades of suppressed rage I didn’t know I had. I have never in my life coped well with anger. Anger directed towards me elicits terror; even overhearing an angry shouting match amidst strangers flashes painful lightning bolts of adrenaline through my body. Anger emanating from me induces self destruction. Call me if you have a spare liver I can keep on ice, and be forewarned that my Rage-O-Meter remains blown out.
I often hear men wonder what #MeToo and #TimesUp have to do with each other. To me they are inextricably related. Plenty of women have already made it clear how intimidating, triggering, and impossible it often is to persevere in industries where you are not just ostracized but often assaulted. In kind, when I hear men ask (as they ceaselessly do): “Are there no women in audio because this is an industry that most women aren’t interested in, or is it because there’s obvious sexism and discrimination against them,” I twitch. It boggles my mind when men don’t understand that the two, like #MeToo and #TimesUp, are co-dependent.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of absurd arguments for not hiring women engineers and assistants. Some male engineers don’t want to hire women because their clients (the artists) might pose a threat to said woman. Others for not wanting to be careful of what they say in case it is construed as sexist. I refuse to accept toxic masculinity as an excuse not to hire women. The problem here is not the woman or her potential endangerment, it is the climate that creates it. Sexism is built into every structure of our society in ways that make them unnoticeable at best, frustratingly inconvenient at worst, to men who aren’t looking for it.
I didn’t know what it felt like to be proud of my industry. It had never crossed my mind, not until I watched Janelle Monae enter the stage at the 2018 Grammys and summarily announce that Time’s Up in our industry, too. I shivered. Goosebumps.
Janelle was putting our industry on notice. Suddenly I knew why I’d endured, celebrated, and suffered every moment of my career: I’d finally earned a position of authority to not just say something, but do something.
Some years ago, Jon Stewart was criticized for not having enough women writers on his team for The Daily Show. His first internal reaction, he says, was defensive. “But our resume submissions are blind!” he exclaimed (this means they don’t know the name or gender of the person whose resume is being considered). When he walked into his writer’s room, however, he realized the criticism was correct. Upon reflection, he understood that the reason the pool of resumes he was receiving lacked diversity was because of the people in charge of getting those resumes to him and his team.
While I don’t believe this is the only reason women are so absent from my industry, I am certain that this paradigm exists in every industry, and we need more men interested in finding that bottleneck whether they feel blamed or not.
Over the past several months, I have thought back often to that moment where I sat, musing over my failure to provide a worthy response to the podcaster’s question “How can men be allies of women in audio?”
The answer, it turns out, is quite simple: hire intelligent, capable women.
Men: be willing to hire women while being yourself. I promise that’s less bad than not hiring women because you’re worried to say the wrong thing around them. Take it from me: a woman. I listen to music with lyrical variations on the theme “bitches, clubs, drugs, and counting my hoes,” day in and day out, and yet I’ve managed not to remove anyone’s eyeballs in a fit of rage or discomfort.
Studios, consider yourself on notice: Time’s Up.
I need an assistant, ladies. Join me amongst the ranks of unicorns.