Women in Audio (Slight Return)

Photo by Steve Haruch

In 2005, I wrote a cover story for the Nashville Scene with the catchy title “Unbalanced Mix: Women account for less than 5 percent of producers and engineers — but maybe not for long.” This story still gets referenced fairly often, if not always linked to. And every now and then, I get an email or tweet from someone who wants to know where the “5 percent” figure comes from. So I hope this is helpful.

The first person who wrote to me was working on an undergraduate music school thesis that explored gender disparities in music production and engineering classrooms at the secondary-school level. It had been a while since I’d thought about this story, so I searched my computer for the files, quickly realizing that they had been on my old machine at the Scene (where I no longer work), which had long ago been scrubbed.

The original impetus for my Scene piece was something I saw on a forum website called Nashville Music Pros. In a group called Female Music Engineers, someone had posted about how few women there were working as audio professionals in Nashville. I’m fairly certain that’s where I first saw mention of the 5 percent figure. Unfortunately, that site seems to be defunct, so I can’t link to the specific post. (The Wayback Machine archive only goes back to 2007.)

In the course of reporting the story, I asked pretty much everyone whether they could confirm or deny the 5 percent number. Everyone who addressed that question said some version of this: “I think 5 percent sounds generous.” This was usually after a long and hearty laugh.

In the end, my editor and I felt comfortable saying “less than 5 percent,” even though we didn’t have an official number to cite. Of course, many independent artists self-produce and/or work outside the professional mainstream. Women I talked to for the story had either never joined the Audio Engineering Society or left. But no one we talked to — including people who either were active in AES at the time or had once been — felt like the actual number was above that threshold. Most thought it was well below, which the phrasing “less than” covered. So we went with it.

Interestingly, the person I quote in the story calling 5 percent “generous” is Terri Winston, founder and executive director of Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco. Here she is quoted in a Huffington Post story from 2016:

When reached for comment, WAM founder Terri Winston told HuffPost that “5 percent” number was actually an estimate made by the Women in Audio Committee of the Audio Engineering Society back in 2000. Today, Winston’s organization believes the number is even smaller than that, based on attendance at Audio Engineering Society conventions.

Without my notes, I can’t be sure, but I don’t remember this coming up when I interviewed her in 2005 — and I’m pretty sure I would have included that ancedote if it had. In any event, it seems like a valid point of reference.

I want to say that when I pitched this story idea in a staff meeting, I expressed that I thought one of our staff writers — I was music editor at the time — would be a great fit. I don’t remember why, but she declined.

I also don’t think I appreciated at the time how much the women who talked to me for the story were putting themselves up for criticism (or ostracism) by speaking out about sexism in the music industry. I thought I was writing an important story and of course they’d want to talk to me for my important story. I’m extremely grateful to Gail Davies, Jonell Polansky, KK Proffitt, Trina Shoemaker, Heather Sturm, Wendy Waldman and Lari White for their wisdom and candor. I hope their stories are still being heard.