Guest Post by Kate Finan
The studio owner skimmed my resume and nodded several times. He glanced up at me, back down at the resume, and then carefully set it back on his desk.
“Your credentials are great. The chair of the Sound Recording Department recommended you very highly, and we have a close relationship with him. So, we will hire you… We will hire you, but you won’t last. We will make sure of that.”
He paused, and I waited for an explanation.
“We don’t hire women. Studio policy,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Unfortunately, he was right: I didn’t last. I worked as hard I could imagine meticulously recording patch bay settings and outboard gear levels, setting up drum kits, moving gobos that were many times my weight, and carefully calculating my mic placements. I silently fought my way to being one of the studio’s best assistant engineers. All the while, my shifts were cut, I was offered up as entertainment to the clients and was goaded with sexual comments and sometimes worse.
After a long year of staying simply to prove the owner wrong, I quit. I had realized that by remaining there, I was succeeding only in making myself miserable.
That was my first experience in the industry.
Luckily, that kind of overt discrimination is rare even in an industry that is so male-dominated. For the most part, over the course of my ten-year-plus career, my co-workers have been my biggest supporters and have often become close friends.
Thus I would like to discuss something much more prevalent and subtle than overt discrimination: bias. By this, I specifically mean the assumptions that we make about any group as a whole based on our own previous interactions with members of that same group.
Fei Xu, a development psychologist who has researched this phenomenon, has reported that this is a natural instinct, even a necessary one. This innate human talent for using our past experiences to make assumptions about new things has helped us throughout our evolutionary existence. We have come to recognize that if a new animal has sharp fangs, it is likely a predator and not a friend. We have come to categorize small, round, red things as berries and have then innately known that they will be sweet and a stupendous source of energy. This ability to categorize based on our past experiences has single-handedly lead to our continued survival on Earth.
Unfortunately, it has also led to bias. Our evolutionary programming tells us to trust our previous experiences and draw natural conclusions based on them. Thus, our experience tells us that on the mix stage, the men are most likely the technical employees and the women the clients. It tells us that at sound industry award shows, the men are the nominees and the women are the wives and girlfriends.
As a supervising sound editor, I was once asked to add a Dolby E-encoded printmaster to my deliverables for a project. I had not encountered this request before, so I read up on the process and then made an appointment with our layback department to discuss it. When I showed up for that meeting and began to ask technical questions, the engineer responded to each one starting with the phrase “Tell your boss that he should…” Clearly, it had not occurred to him that I was the boss.
I did not correct him, and perhaps I should have. As uncomfortable as it made me to have him assume that I was someone’s assistant, I knew that his responses were not ill-intentioned. This was a case of an honest mistake based on actual real-life experiences. Most likely, he had never personally encountered a female supervising sound editor.
Furthermore, women are not immune when it comes to bias. I, too, have found myself wondering who that new producer is only to find out that she is, in fact, a sound editor or mixer. We all live in the world as it is, and our minds create the necessary assumptions to accommodate that world. We are not bad people for this. We are simply people.
As you can imagine, it is difficult to not only exist, but thrive, in an environment which finds my pure existence to be a surprise. Add to that the constant visual reminder that no one else looks like me, that I am “other,” and you will understand the force of impact that this has had on my professional life. This impact is one purely facilitated by numbers, not environment. As long as there are so few women in audio positions, this issue of bias will remain.
So what should we, as an industry, do? The answer should be obvious: hire more women. Previously, I had thought that there was a general lack of women in the industry because young women were not pursuing audio engineering in school or as a career. However since becoming a partner in a post-production sound studio of my own, I have been inundated by resumes, requests for coffee meetings, and emails asking for advice from the exact set of young women which I did not previously think existed. Not only are they there, but they are hungry for careers.
So, my request of you is twofold:
First, I ask that you do something scary. I ask that you create a situation in which you will be “the only one.” Put yourself in a position where you are a willing participant in a situation where everyone else is different than you. Go to a mommy and me yoga class, attend a service at a Sikh temple, drive to East Cesar E Chavez Avenue and spend an afternoon chatting with the shop owners and eating at a restaurant. It is important that you do this alone.
You will most likely feel out of place and isolated as if everyone is looking at you even when they aren’t. Those feelings underline the fact that as welcoming and accepting as any environment is, it is impossible to feel completely at ease when you are “the only one.” I challenge you to understand that one woman in a company or even in a department is not enough to claim diversity or to dispel ideas of gender inequality or workplace discomfort.
That brings me to my second request: I ask that you do your best to help women find a place in the audio community. If you are in a position to do so, interview more women when you have a job opening. Suggest female candidates to your boss. Answer LinkedIn requests. Give career advice. Brush aside the idea that your assistance may be misconstrued as romantic interest. If there were more women, young female audio engineers would surely contact them to ask for coffee meetings and phone calls (a fact made evident by my now-flooded inbox), but for now, you are their best chance for an inside perspective.
Kate Finan (@Kate_Finan) is the co-owner of Boom Box Post, a post production sound studio in Burbank, CA. Follow Boom Box Post (@boomboxpost) on Twitter and please visit www.boomboxpost.com where she and co-owner Jeff Shiffman (@soundslikejeff) blog regularly about creative sound design.
April Tucker says
Great article, Kate! Its a fine line between offering support and giving priority, but I think you explain it very well: be open minded and aware of your biases. Even as women – I too catch myself assuming a woman isn’t a sound engineer, mixer, tech, etc. I’ve met enough female picture editors and AEs to get past that… It’s just a matter of time before the same holds with sound!
Kate Finan says
Thanks for reading, April! It certainly is a fine line, and simply keeping an open mind is truly the key. Incidentally, my partner Jeff and I were recently interviewing for two editing positions at Boom Box Post. We made a point of meeting with every single person who contacted us without cherry picking with whom we invested our time. It turned out that after meeting everyone and comparing small test samples of their work, we ended up two new female staff members. They hadn’t necessarily been the most experienced candidates, but they were the most talented. That really surprised us both, but we are thrilled with the level of fresh talent we’ve added to our team.
David Brooks says
I love your suggestion to give people the experience of discrimination. As a male caucasian, I had no experience with discrimination until I went to the heart of China for a month back in the 80’s. My Chinese was not that good at the time, so I had a language disability as well. I did speak enough to understand the phrase “white ghost” and that it referred to me. When I returned home, I had a very different attitude about minorities and a much deeper sympathy for people with English as a Second Language. I think this type of experience should be required for all Male WASPs.
I attended a master training class given by Alan Parsons in Chicago last weekend and there were 3 women attendees out of 35. We need to change that ratio. I’ve met the folks at Women’s Audio Mission and I’m happy to say they are making progress. My company Musicians Guild is certainly doing what it can to level the playing field.
Thanks for sharing and keep on fighting the good fight.
Kate Finan says
Thanks for reading, David, and for sharing your experiences. I have a friend who read the post as well and mentioned a similar experience. He said that he had never thought about the issue until he played guitar with a gospel band at an all-African American church. As a young college-aged white man, that experience was formative in helping him to understand the feelings of others who are minorities in certain situations.
I’m a big fan of WAM (Women’s Audio Mission) and am glad that they’re gaining such a following amongst people of all different backgrounds. Thanks to you and your company for being so open-minded!
Verna Mandek says
Kate, this was fantastic. I have experienced all of this and, probably like you, much worse as well. My least memorable comment was that I was “taking up” a job that could go to a man with a family to support. That I was being selfish and would eventually quit and get pregnant anyway. I should just get out now. Yup. Really.
I cannot tell you how many I’ve been called for technical support and when they hear a woman answer the phone they assume they got the wrong number. Hang up, call back and go “what the f!!K?”
April Tucker says
Verna – you brought up a good element that hasn’t really come up yet: how it’s really difficult to stand up to workplace harassment or bullying. Jesting comes along with the gig, but there is a line that sometimes gets crossed. I’m sure many of us women have stories of getting hit on but would never report it to management (thinking it’ll affect our job, or that we can handle it on our own). I was once asked in an interview if I was married or planning to have kids soon, which is totally illegal to ask (in the US) because of discrimination laws. I let those kinds of things slide when I was younger cause I needed the work or was scared of retaliation… if it were to happen to me now, I wouldn’t think twice about saying something about it.
Kate Finan says
Verna, I can completely relate. I certainly have had much worse experiences which I chose not to share for this piece because I wanted to focus on the underlying issues and their possible solution rather than distracting with the novelty of ghastly stories. But, that was a hard choice to make, since those stories underline the deep truth of our situation. Over the years, I have found myself in very difficult workplace situations, but have felt pressure to not draw further attention to the myself by complaining. It’s a slow slog to build up trust and credibility day by day with those who don’t necessarily give it freely, but in the end I hope it’s as worth it for you as it is for me. Feel free to send me an email if you ever need to vent. :)
“So what should we, as an industry, do? The answer should be obvious: hire more women.”
I hope you don’t really believe that. Who’s to say if the ‘industry’ should really do anything at all? There will always be careers and areas where women excel better than men (and vice versa) and that’s not a societal flaw, it’s a fact of nature. Men’s and women’s brains are wired differently (not my opinion btw, this is science). That’s why there will always be more men in fields like mathmatics, computers, race-car drivers, and more women in fields like nursing, social work, and such. Bias obviously exists in your (or any) industry, but the blame should be placed with the individual who’s discriminating, not the entire industry.
Kate Finan says
Mike, thank you for reading as well as commenting! In order to have a fruitful conversation, it’s important that both sides are expressed, and I’m glad that you took the time to join in.
I certainly agree that men and women as a whole have different professions which may appeal to them, or in which they naturally, as a whole, excel. I’m happy to take this moment to clarify–I am not insinuating that a solution lies in hiring women who are unwilling or unqualified to hold positions in audio engineering. I’m simply asking that those who express an interest, go through the process of getting degrees and acquiring the necessary experience and knowledge be considered for the jobs available without dismissal purely based on their gender.
Like I mentioned, I too had previously assumed that there simply wasn’t the demographic of women audio engineers, but as a business owner I’ve come to realize that many women are getting educations in this particular area of study and are applying for jobs. They’re just not represented in the same percentage in the actual profession. This would lead me to believe that perhaps it is not a lack of skills, mental capacity, or interest in the field, but maybe other exterior factors which are skewing this statistic.
I hope that we can agree that despite society’s overall view of a gender’s capacity to hold a certain position (after all, when my father was ill in the hospital, I witnessed several male nurses, surely in the minority, who offered unique and wonderful talents for nursing in their capacity to relate to male patients, easily turn or lift them in beds, etc.), each individual always deserves to be judged based on his or her personal merit.
Kyle Evans says
Thanks for posting this, this was really well expressed and an important topic. Plus even though I’m male, I’m often put off by the macho male dominated culture of some work places – so I’m always welcoming of diversity for all our sakes.
It’s worth noting Sound Librarian have tried to address this in their own way. They had some kind of training program targeted at women in sound – plus they offer a 20% discount as a way of highlighting the pay gap. This isn’t a one size fits all solution of course, but hopefully as we see a positive culture shift the workforce will change with it,
Kate Finan says
That’s great to know about Sound Librarian. Thanks for sharing!