Getting More Women in Studio: How to Get Beyond the Stats & Empty Rhetoric & Create Real Change
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Professional Sound.
By Selina Setrakian
Women populate an unreasonably small part of the music industry’s technical side and with each study done on the matter, the only thing that's grown is the massive number of articles with nearly identical headlines proclaiming, “Less than 5% of music producers and engineers are women.” Simply put, even though we continue to address this percentage time and time again, things have yet to significantly change for female-identifying producers, engineers, and mixers. But why is that? To better understand what changes are needed, we first must ask ourselves a few questions; the first being, who do these stats really reflect?
Producer, writer, mixer, and recording and mastering engineer Elisa Pangsaeng takes a firm stance that the current stats demonstrate a continued failure to acknowledge the many women who already exist in the industry. So, do the numbers lie? Unfortunately, they don’t, exactly. And to get a better picture on the matter, music producer, engineer, and Berklee professor, Susan Rogers suggests we consider what is meant when we say “the industry.”
“These days, the percentage of women engineering, mixing, or producing is fairly high if you consider everyone making a musical product, but when you ask, ‘how many records have you sold or streamed?’ we see a very, very different distribution,” explains Rogers.
Essentially, the stats only take into consideration those who have commercial success, which in itself is no easy feat. So, what can be done?
“We need to have what happened to me and Leanne Ungar and Sylvia Massy – males, from A&R executives to artists, willing to trust a woman in the driver's seat as a producer, engineer, or mixer, and hire them,” says Rogers. “The more they hire them, the more these women will get the credits and visibility, the more other men will take a chance, saying ‘if this artist or this band is willing to trust them, I should too.’ We need that cooperation. My career was launched as an engineer because Prince was willing to work with women engineers. Similarly, people worked with me after I worked with the Barenaked Ladies, because I was a female record producer who had a number one record.”
Having a great deal of experience is often required to receive any semblance of recognition. Still, for many, even getting one's leg in the door of the industry is rather tricky when work opportunities are scarce and unstable at times.
“Studios are finding it more and more difficult to stay in operation and those who can, for the most part, are small business operations who cannot afford in-house engineers,” explains Canadian music producer and recording engineer, Amy King. “Being a freelance or self-employed producer/engineer is difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone coming out of a pandemic or with issues attached to gender.”
Pangsaeng echoes the same concerns, adding, “I think one of the more discouraging aspects of the narrative around this right now, is that it's really challenging specifically for women. It's just challenging. This industry doesn't really move quickly in regards to people's careers, for most people. You really have to build it.”
Even Pangsaeng – whose clients include Yukon Blonde, Kinnie Starr, and Said the Whale, among others – feels she is still breaking in and establishing her career. She explains the process as one which requires a minimum of 10 years of simultaneously growing, learning, and building a client base. She, of course, is not alone in thinking this way. King also believes becoming a good engineer/producer requires at least a decade of learning skills and then another spent honing them, which brings in another critical block for women entering the industry – the cultural pressure or goal of starting a family.
“This decade-ish time of learning skills coincides exactly with the prime years to start a family. This very thing can create a career-altering situation,” explains King. “Engineers are often freelance or self-employed individuals, so there are no medical benefits, and taking time off for maternity leave not only creates a financial issue, but artists and bands often don’t want to wait once they are ready to create, so they’ll find someone else to do the work. I know women in the industry who manage a family and a career but it is really tough, especially early on, as the hours are unpredictable and can be very long.”
The small stats currently representing women may also reflect this, as women who do prioritize starting a family may have considered sacrificing their career. What's important to consider amidst all of this is the duration of time required to gain enough experience to break in and achieve success.
But is there only one way to define success? For King, making a hit record or recording a hit song doesn’t define success. “A major issue here is redefining one's idea of success overall,” she says. “The small ratio of engineers who actually get to work on mainstream music still seem to be men; however, there are loads of great female engineers out there. Just because most engineers are not working with very well-known artists doesn’t mean we are not there and are not valued.”
For those seeking to increase the number of women from the 2-5% stat, however, it is critical that some women do work on hits and chart-toppers. As explained by songwriter, composer/recording engineer/producer, as well as founder and director of Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), Terri Winston, “When a big artist calls me asking to work with a woman producer, I need to suggest somebody with Grammy nominations because that's what the expectations are. The pool becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, when the expectations are higher and higher, and the pool is already incredibly small. We’ll hand them a list of, say, 40 women. It’s hard to make that list with our limited selection and that number is still not enough to choose from.”
The next obstacle women face within this industry, which likely deters many from entering or staying, is the continual presence of sexism. Of course, environmental and social obstacles are not uncommon in any workforce, but when someone's qualifications and abilities are dismissed daily due to their identity as a woman, there’s clearly an issue. Imagine you're doing your job as a producer when someone walks in and rudely points you out, asking if you're the girlfriend or wife of the studio owner. It’s not only incredibly upsetting, but also unbelievably common, even today. It, of course, doesn’t end there. Several women have also shared stories of being considered studio secretaries and cleaning ladies. Pangsaeng sums up the experience, explaining when a man walks into a recording studio everyone looks to him, thinking of course he’s the producer or engineer.
“If I'm there, the first thing people look for is a man in a room. They’ll just sit there and wait for the engineer, while I’m right there asking if they’d like to get started,” says Pangsaeng. “So, when I wanted to be taken seriously, even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I began to bury my gender and my sexuality. I think especially as a woman, you instinctively just stack the odds in your favour.”
Sadly, the display and effects of sexism in the industry don’t stop there. Many women comment on how the hostile environment for women breeds a sort of disdain between women in the studio. “We're really conditioned to accept that there's not a ton of space for more than one woman in the room,” explains Pangsaeng. “Looking back, I definitely made that normal and acceptable in my mind, sometimes even taking pride in being the only woman in the room. That's problematic. However, normalizing women's presence in the studio will change that perspective.”
Winston furthers this point, adding, “There is damage this environment has created and I feel sad, because I know they have weathered an enormous amount of sexism, so I remind younger folks, they're doing it to survive as they have more to lose.”
Another unavoidable issue can be found in the social qualities of a very male-dominated field. In Rogers’ past observations of women starting in the business, she comments on the absence of the pervasive competitive spirit commonly seen in men. “When I teach at the Berklee College of Music, some young female record-makers, engineers, mixers, producers, hit the wall hard trying to interact with men in a competitive environment. We need to model that more for young women – how to continue in the face of that competitive drive. Of course, sometimes due to a lack of self-confidence they’ll feel reluctant to express their opinions and keep up. But other times they're perfectly competent and it's just intolerance from a guy.”
It goes without saying, women cannot be sheltered from toxic men, but the level of intolerance and discomfort women must face daily in their work environment makes it understandable why they’d consider leaving altogether – and in truth, many do. “The attrition comes once they're entering the industry,” explains Winston. “It isn't the most supportive, and it's traditionally been 90 to 98% male. Because there's no representation, no human resources department, nobody to go to when there's an issue, women don’t feel comfortable. You can diversify your workforce, but if they don't feel like they belong, they're going to leave.”
If those in the music industry truly want to see more change, there needs to be more initiative to create an environment that fosters belonging. This of course, includes making it more commonplace to see women in the workspace in roles as producer or engineer. For Pangaseng, this sort of change will encourage more women to continue to stay in the industry as there is an added element of safety. “It's easier to imagine yourself doing something when you can see someone who even vaguely resembles you doing it. So, if you're an aspiring woman engineer/producer and you see another woman working the role with confidence, you're probably more likely to believe that you can do it.”
The issue that stands in the way of this progress is that a significant amount of what some call advocacy is often actually tokenism. Rather than seeking to hire more women for the sake of creating change, the bare minimum is done to meet a certain public standing. Even so, some still question whether tokenism is really all that bad since it is still creating some change, regardless of its intentions. Well, King views it as a complete dismissal of one's skill and experience level. “I’ve always said, I don’t want to get a gig to fill some quota or to enable a musician/artist/band to get a grant because I am female. I want the gig because I’m a great engineer,” she explains.
But on the other hand, there are truly instances where tokenism has provided those with limited access greater opportunities. Pangsaeng describes her own experience with tokenism as “filling in a checkbox.” “It's very possible that I got hired as a checkbox. But it worked. I got a job and met colleagues who were likely checkboxes as well. Even if the intentions were bad, it inspired people to keep doing it.”
Even Winston recalls several conversations held between panels and conferences where the topic of tokenism was thrown around and it was concluded as something not to dwell on. “We put on a conference with sound designer Paula Fairfield from Game of Thrones and we got to talking about tokenism,” recalls Winston. “She had said, ‘I don't care if they're hiring me because I’m a woman. I'm gonna go in there, I'm gonna kick some ass, and they're gonna hire me again,’ and that's how I look at it. I think if you're confident, it doesn't matter why you're hired. I don't love that people have that intention, but that's on them.”
The issue here is that tokenism does not promise women stability in their career. Not only is it harder to go further in one's career when hired solely under tokenism, they are also the first to go when reducing staff. This was a harsh reality many were witness to when the pandemic shutdowns began. “When COVID hit, I had an instance where I was in the hands of others, and they had to decide if I was valuable,” recalls Pangsaeng. “It became super obvious who was considered valuable, and who was not – really, the most blatant example of sexism and racism I encountered in the industry.”
Similarly, Rogers recalls a critical night after a male-dominated Grammys where ex-president of the recording academy, Neil Portnow, infamously commented that women need to “step up.” “I was at the Recording Academy meeting for the producers and engineers wing the next day,” recalls Rogers. “We sat around at that table just shaking our heads. I said, ‘I've been stepping up for 40 years. It doesn't always get you there and it's really hard to step up when you keep getting pushed back down.’”
After all this reflection on what’s continually harming women in and entering the industry, it’s time we start asking ourselves, what feasible change can we strive towards? First and foremost, women in the industry ask that there is a perspective shift.
“The narrative is always like, ‘It was hard, right?’ and I would love it if for once that wasn't the first expectation – that I must have faced so much bullshit to be here,” says Pangsaeng. “I think it really does scare people away thinking they're going to face all this crazy, rampaging misogyny. The more we just continue to normalize the idea of women in the studio, it’s going to make a huge difference in how upcoming women engineers/producers view things.”
Things, of course, don’t end there. Susan Rogers believes changing the current perspective will require the help of the media. From films to news stories, women need to be rewarded for their achievements. Nowadays, most media fail to achieve this, either only portraying women’s horror stories in the industry or complete fluff pieces. “Celebrating people's victories is super important,” explains Pangsaeng. “But how is it done? Is it waving a flag because a woman did it? A lot of media where women's work is highlighted, it's not really about them as individuals. It's just like, ‘Look! Girls can do shit!’ which is so close, but not quite there.”
In order for the industry to adapt and improve on a massive scale, we’ll also need to observe current successful models, and both support them as well as strive to replicate them. Winston’s non-profit organization, Women's Audio Mission (WAM), is a perfect example that organizations should look towards on this matter. For 18 years, WAM provided the only recording studios in the world built and run entirely by women and gender-expansive folks. Their success can be noted in Northern California where practically every venue, recording studio, and convention centre now has a female producer or engineer trained by them – and people are starting to take notice as their dedication has even recently been rewarded with a million-dollar gift from McKenzie Scott, which will be put toward a national expansion effort.
But what exactly are they doing that’s so ground-breaking? Well, it’s actually rather straightforward! Winston describes their process as providing things they know work, like necessary training, support in a safe environment that connects women to trusted allies, networking opportunities, conferences that reach 800-plus women from around the world, mentors, and so forth. Of course, it doesn’t stop there. “We’ve placed close to 1,000 women into this industry, but there’s plenty more advocacy to be done,” Winston says. “Getting into the Grammys, for one, and talking about their voting structure and their member structure and increasing the number of women, gender expansiveness, and people of colour.”
Each stride towards increasing representation, increasing recognition, increasing communication, and increasing education does make a difference. What doesn’t is continuing to simply comment on the state of things and expecting it to change. Of all the mistakes made when seeking change, expecting change to occur serendipitously is the most common and worst to make. Winston shares this sentiment, asking that we move our focus from putting out study after study and directing our attention and money to what actually works.
“I'm so tired of more studies being done. Why don't we instead spend the million dollars from the study on training girls, pushing them up into the industry, and getting people to hire them? Put women in the control rooms and in production houses so that we are represented,” says Winston. “How can you expect the messages you're pumping into the world to represent those groups, when 90% of the people working on them aren't going to even know what those messages should be like? It’s politics. It's absolute common sense. Yet, nobody wants to do it because it's hard. How many times, in different ways, are we gonna say there’s not enough women? How many times are we going to say performative things and not actually do anything?”
Ultimately, obstacles are bound to continue to exist, but their presence shouldn’t keep us from fighting for change, big or small. “Just the fact that you're interested in changing things, is going to help somebody feel like they belong. Having these difficult conversations, like going to the Academy of Country Music and asking why there's never been a woman engineer nominated makes things change. In one year, that was changed just by that one simple question,” explains Winston.
Rather than dwelling on such hurdles and growing disheartened, seek out those who are equally invested in bringing about change. After all, one of the greatest catalysts for change is oneself. As Winston explains, “It doesn’t matter where obstacles are coming from, you just need to find the folks that are willing to help you.”
Selina Setrakian a freelance writer and former Editorial Assistant at Professional Sound.