Photo of American University Audio Technology student editing a project. Taken by Alyssa Rotunno.
By: Alyssa Rotunno
WASHINGTON – When Ana Centina walks into a freelancing job as a sound engineer, she feels she is greeted with “stares by colleagues” who were “expecting a man to do the job, rather than a woman.” Like other women in the audio industry, Centina is a rarity and states she is treated differently than her male coworkers.
“Being a female in a male-dominated industry is really tough. When I would work at small venues the owners would have no confidence in my work so they would hover all over me, constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I could do it correctly,” Centina said, shaking her head. “I think it was subconscious, but they never did that to the male technicians.”
Centina, the director for American University’s audio technology program and a freelance live sound technician, works in an industry that men have dominated for a long time.
Less than five percent of women were working in the audio industry back in 2000, estimated the Audio Engineering Society (AES), a professional association for those involved in the audio.
The Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), a nonprofit located in San Francisco that teaches women how to have audio careers, believes that statistic stayed the same for the past 17 years.
“The biggest challenge is that women, in general, are socialized to be afraid of tech jobs and are told it’s something only men do,” said Angel Dunkin, a WAM employee. “Trying to get women to jump in and learn it and master it is half the battle. They can do it, they just need to believe they can first.”
One of the ways WAM tries to get more women involved in the industry is by hosting music production classes specifically for young girls during their formative years. However, WAM also provides classes for adult women who are looking to break into the industry as well. Though WAM receives more young women students every year, some professors say they still only see two to three women in a class of 20 men, Dunkin said.
In AU’s audio program, this statistic is more or less the same. As of today, there are 8 female audio technology majors and 13 male audio technology majors. Moreover, there are 17 female audio production majors and 45 male audio production majors as well as 12 female graduate students versus the 22 male graduate students.
This isn’t only happening at AU. Male students consistently outnumber female students 5-to-1 at the Recording Engineers Institute in New York, according to AES. Moreover, the University of Colorado’s Recording Arts Program recently received only 45 female applications compared to the 170 male applications.
“Audio is a very heavily apprenticeships based industry and I think a lot of power comes from that, but now that there are all of these universities popping up where they’re training you in a professional way how to do audio, so you don’t actually have to put up with these annoying people anymore,” said Alexandria Wood, a full-time live sound freelancer and tour manager in New York City. “I came in and there were a couple of situations where people tried to treat me like shit and then I just was bored and I was like ‘I don’t need to hang out with you because I have a degree and so I’m going to go and work somewhere else.’”
However, these types of audio education programs weren’t always around. According to Centina, when she was looking at schools over a decade ago, there were only three or four colleges with audio technology majors, which often required her to be a full-time musician as well. Now, these types of majors are popping up in schools across the country.
“Girls don’t always know about engineering unless they have a cousin or a brother who goes to the studio. That’s just the thing,” said Alexis Sullivan, an up-and-coming live sound technician in D.C. “Nobody was going to teach me in the real world. I personally know that, I’ve learned that and […] I had to teach myself, so I went to school.”
Due to this, the disparity in the classroom is decreasing. At AU, over the last ten years, the number of women enrolled in an undergraduate audio program increased from four to 20. That is slightly over a four percent increase.
“When I was an undergrad at AU, I was the only female in my year for a long time. I convinced my friend to join and we were the only two girls out of 35 students,” Centina said. “We have more females in the program now than we did students in general back in my day. It’s a great improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Though the education sector is improving, it may not necessarily reflect the large-scale disparity within the industry. In its 40-year history, only six women have received nominations for the GRAMMY’s Producer of the Year award. Though musical icons such as Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Sheryl Crow were all nominees, no woman has yet to take the award home.
Along the same line, Björk, an Icelandic singer and record producer, created 80 percent of the beats on her newest album, “Vespertine.” Which, allegedly took her three years to complete. Matmos, a San Francisco based electronic-duo, helped Björk with the last 20 percent of the album. Yet, Matmos received credit for having done the album, said Björk in an interview with Pitchfork’s Jessica Hopper.
Wood believes that women face these issues and cannot get ahead due to the industry being so heavily freelance-based and “sexist in nature.”
“It’s a weird industry because to me, as a freelancer, I don’t have an HR Department. So if somebody treats me badly, I either just have to deal with it or quit. And I have to be okay with that,” Wood said. “It’s really frustrating and you also miss out on a lot of opportunities.”
Live sound technicians spend their nights in music venues where people are drinking and partying. This leads to a handful of tough situations, Wood said explaining her work environment.
“The lines are more blurred because you’re in this environment of people drinking and going out. Sometimes coworkers have talked to me very casually about their sex lives in a way that I later found out they didn’t speak to other peers,” Wood said. “It’s hard to determine whether it was just because I work in a more of a casual environment or if it was because I’m a girl and they’re trying to sleep with me.”
Centina experienced inappropriate behavior from her peers as well and believes that, along with discouragement, it is what leads to a lack of women in audio careers outside of college.
“The industry doesn’t necessarily reflect university program enrollment for a number of reasons,” Centina said. “When you’re young, you’re more vulnerable and it’s easy to get discouraged. Even if you get good grades and know what you’re doing, it’s easy for girls to switch industries and give up because their male bosses yelled at them and they have no female colleagues to turn to or look up to.”
Organizations such as ProjectHERA, a nonprofit to benefit girls in the music industry in the DMV area, seek to end this issue by creating a support group for women in the industry.
“We provide an outlet for women to connect. We try to host events once a month where we can all get together and see we’re not alone, spread awareness and support each other during the rough patches,” said Cathy DiToro, the founder of the nonprofit. “It’s pretty powerful to have that connection with other women who have gone through what you’re going through.”
ProjectHERA also has a Facebook page, named ProjectHERA’s Music Room, where its members can share articles and resources as well as seek advice from more experienced women. This type of mentorship is something Lauren Migaki, an audio journalist at NPR, a non-profit media organization, believes will help women in the audio industry in the future.
“It’s hard to find a female mentor, but it’s so important,” said Migaki. “I think women feel like they’re undeserving or unqualified of mentorship, but they are deserving. Everyone, especially women, need someone to look up to and feel comfortable talking to about their career with in order to grow.”
One way everybody can help lessen the disparity is by encouraging and speaking up for women in the workplace, said Migaki.
“It is so important, for men and women, to amplify other women’s voices at meetings,” said Migaki. “There’s this trend for young women to be railroaded or interrupted or ignored and we need to do a better job of letting those voices be amplified and supporting those voices rather than shutting them down.”
Though the audio industry has come a long way, Centina still thinks there is a long way to go.
“I don’t want to be called a female audio engineer, I want to be called an audio engineer,” said Centina. “Once we get there, then men and women will be truly equal.”
Sullivan, thinking towards the future and reflecting on her time in the industry has advice for girls looking to follow in her footsteps.
“We gotta put ourselves out there, you can not be afraid of a no or getting your neck chopped off. You have to push as much as possible and set that standard for yourself and women to follow in your footsteps,” Sullivan said. “Stay hungry for it, hungrier than the boys.”