Op-Ed: Where are All the Chicks?

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The music industry studio scene is the largest sausage party I’ve ever been to. I used to think being “one of the guys” was pretty cool and counted myself lucky to be included in all the inappropriate conversations, which mostly revolved around the objectification of my gender.

But as the dick jokes run out, the question I find myself asking is, ‘Where are all the chicks?’  Well, I’ll tell you where they are… they’re on their way, and when they get here, I suggest the guys find something more interesting to talk about.

Over the next 15-20 years we will see a massive shift in the number of female producers, engineers and DJ’s on the scene. Similar to other professions (doctors, lawyers, executives) the ratio of males to females will be more balanced over time. We’re already starting to see the shift on the DJ side of things, albeit in a typically sexualized manner, and the tipping-point isn’t far away.

Until then, being one of the few women in music technology, I am often asked why there aren’t more of us. For me there are three answers to the “why:”

  • Lack of Role Models

Although there are a number of us out there*, very few women have become household names, in the manner of musical males, like Pharrell, Skrillex, or Bob Moog.

One of the only females who has truly penetrated the spectrum is Santigold, who has been in the game for roughly 15 years. Imagine there were 10 other Santigolds out there producing and programming/engineering the most popular tracks on the radio. Don’t you think more little girls would be asking for MPC’s for Christmas instead of Barbie’s? I do!

The lack of role support is huge and one of the biggest reasons why there aren’t more Carole King’s to our Burt Bacharach’s. I’ve read blogs that claim — and many more people say — that “women aren’t interested” in these technical roles, but I don’t think that’s accurate.

Too few female tech-mavens exist to let the rest of us know we even should be interested. I think there are plenty of women out there who would love to make beats or dream of producing music, but don’t because it’s not something women typically do.  (Paris Hilton recently named herself one of the top 5 DJ’s in the world… even though she may not be a prime candidate for role model of the year, I can’t hate on her for at least being out there…)

  • Women are from Venus

You didn’t have to read the book to get the message that ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’, but as a metaphor in this context, that idea is both so true and so false.

Women get stereotyped as “emotional” where men get to keep it “professional.”  The boys don’t want us in the studio because we’ll kill the vibe, the girls don’t want to be in the control room because they feel out of place. We are inherently very different creatures, but the bottom line is that we both have ears and the six inches that lie between them, and that makes us all music creators.

The fact is, many women are deterred by the pressure to conform to a male-dominated paradigm and simply don’t make it into the rooms where the sessions are taking place. This also translates into the rooms where the skills are being taught. I’ve had many women tell me they feel uncomfortable learning in situations where they are the only female (or one of very few).

It would be wrong for us to try and hide who we are or become filtered versions of ourselves in order to succeed or fit into the boys club.  There are enough professional women out there to prove that we are capable of knowing when to turn the emotional faucet off, and my point is knowing the value of when to turn it on.  We have no place trying to act like the men… the road to success is us acting like women.

Furthermore, women listen to their worlds in a completely differently fashion then men. When a man hears the sentence, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ they interpret it literally.  But a woman hears what lies behind the literal words:  for example, the hint of the current bad day that explains how the words were delivered, or the undertone of loneliness that was written between the lines. Not only that, but it’s scientifically proven that women hear better than men and are genetically predisposed to being more aurally attuned to their surroundings.

Erin Barra runs the Beats by Girlz program at the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York.

Erin Barra (left) and her Beats by Girlz program with the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York.

  • Bumping that Bump

Of all the women seen in the studio, the pregnant woman is the rarest of them all.  The obstacles of simultaneously being a mom and a professional require a huge time commitment.  The hours of being a producer, engineer, or DJ are very demanding, and for most of us getting pregnant would seem to be career sabotage.

Personally, I pray that by the time I’m ready to go from producing to reproducing, my career is at a point where I can take a break that isn’t permanent.  Needless to say, as a woman in my late 20’s, it’s something I think about often and can understand how this is preventing many women from exploring these career paths.

Here’s to all my ladies making moves in the music industry, whether inside the studio or out. We are a unique sisterhood and one that I’m proud to be a part of. And as a side note to everyone at the sausage party, we’re having all you can eat buffet over here and you’re all invited!

* (To name just a few) Producers like Santigold, Peaches, Grimes, Tokimonsta, Bonnie Hayes; engineers like Trina Shoemaker, Ann Mincieli, Emily Wright, Susan Rogers, Hillary Johnson, Emily Lazar, Heba Kadry, etc, etc.; DJ’s Nervo, Maya James Cole, etc. 

— ERIN BARRA is a singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/Ableton-enthusiast/nationally-touring-aritst. She is the founder of Beats By Girlz, a creative and educational recording-arts campaign developed in cooperation with the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York.  The ‘female-powered intro to music tech’ program (scheduled to begin in Spring 2014) will be open to students of the Lower Eastside Girls Club between the ages of 8-18 and also to a group of young mothers. Visit her on Facebook or Twitter.  

  • yerboy

    One only needs to look at the plethora of women in film editing suites to recognize that technology is not the issue, culture is.

  • Ginger

    This article is so problematic I don’t even know where to begin. You also apparently need a history lesson if Santigold is the only woman you could come up with. Oy. I appreciate what you’re trying to communicate, but completely wrong way to go about it. 22 year female veteran of the business here who’s been in the big rooms with the “Big Boys.” In that time, little, if anything, has changed. I seriously doubt the next 15-20 years is going to bring a sea change with respect to gender equality in the music business. I’d love to be wrong, but I have no indication of that. There are serious cultural and practical issues you touch on that aren’t going away any time soon. Articles like this (laden with the writer’s own sexism) however well-meaning, don’t help either the conversation or the cause.

  • Benny Tanner

    Pretty absurd perspective. Over the past 50 years female buyers have been purchasing the artist, not the art, the sizzle, not the steak. When the balance of male perspective is reduced, so will be the sizzle… This writer obviously has no understanding of “art”.

  • There is definitely a culture issue, though. Flip through any music tech mag or catalog and a stunning number of ads feature sexy/cute/buxom/scantily-clad women booth-babing a product. Look at Neutrik’s latest ad campaign – while I applaud them for picking an “alternative” model, I have a hard time seeing past the fact that they decided that a “hot girl in a bikini” is somehow a great way to sell connectors. Even the tamest ads (Mojave’s comes to mind) still drop a manic pixie dream girl in a poodle skirt into their print ads.

    What’s that say to women trying to get into the industry?

    It’s endemic to a lot of industries, sure. And in a lot of industries I can even see the sort of cold marketing calculations (“drink this beer to attract hot girls!”). It’s an unpleasant situation in our society, but certainly marketeers have no problem using it to tehri advantage. but in pro audio I can’t ever think of an occasion where an engineer would think “man, if I only used SomeBrand XLR cables, I’d be able to attract a hot chick.”

    I’ve known a few female engineers and while this is by no means a scientific survey, each one has complained about being pushed aside by a male “real engineer” who thinks they’re the secretary or receptionist, or someone’s girlfriend. It’s a bad scene.

  • Hmmm, as a woman who is both an engineer and a touring songwriter, (And studio owner) I get what the author is trying to say, but I can’t 100% agree. Given the author is in her 20’s, I can understand why perhaps her only point of reference for female artists/producers might be Santigold,.. But I can think of quite a few more,.. Wendy Carlos, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Imogen Heap, St Vincent,.. I’m missing a bunch more,..I could go on,. all of them pioneers and highly respected.
    The author might do well to expand her knowledge of “popular music”.

    Is there a culture of sexism? yes. But not just in the music industry, it’s everywhere in American culture. Whether one is a politician, a real estate agent or a recording engineer. It’s part of the culture that slowly is beginning to erode.
    I dare say, part of the issue with being a woman in the music world has to do with “OUR OWN” perception of intolerance. If one walks around with a chip on her shoulder expecting to be treated differently based on gender, then guess what? THAT will be her experience. The idea of being respected but not accepted is something that I feel a lot of women share, especially when they are on the way up.

    Once you make a name for yourself, that perspective changes.

    The music business, the recording business, the audio business- they are not difficult fields just for women, it’s difficult for everyone. I know just as many men who for one reason or another left the game. It’s super competitive and involves some luck as well.

    The one’s who succeed are those who can flip the bird to convention, ( or in some cases learn to confirm, LOL) do what they do, and do it well.
    Is it easy? no. Will it ever be? no. Is it female centric? no. It’s universal.

  • yerboy

    I totally agree with you. Hence my point that it’s cultural. For things like sexist ads, we gotta vote with our wallets.. I recall a recent thread on the Facebook about a certain company at NAMM having booth babes pushing their new plug-in. Like, that has ANYTHING to do with whether the thing sounds good or works. Makes me not want to use anymore of that company’s software even though some of it is quite good.

  • Gavin Skal

    Without taking away anything that’s been said so far, either by the author or previous commenters, I’d like to point out the incredible contribution of the late Wilma Cozart Fine, to whom we owe the standard of excellence in hi-fidelity classical recording.

  • Jeff

    I spent many years in studios. With the fortune if working beside some if the cream of the crop engineers and producers. And yes 99% male. But I also was fortunate to meet two outstanding women in the music business. Look these ladies up and add them to your list. They are as big as it gets. Leslie Ann Jones and Cheryl Pawelski. Girl power go!!

  • Kristina Stykos

    I appreciate that Erin is trying to revive the discussion, which seems to get shoved under the rug. Those who have made it in to the male dominated studio environment are often content to play the game by those rules – after all, it’s a challenging psychological battle to win, so once you’re there … But the music industry, thank goodness, is ready to see some new models for production. I foresee a shift to smaller production houses that can turn out high quality, thoughtful music. Women are perfectly suited to master the details of professional recording and have the people skills to create works of art that are multi-dimensional and honest. We need to continue to encourage each other to excel. As a musician and studio owner, I am doing my part. If we believe that we can get the training we need and then do it ourselves, the world will be a better place for it. http://www.pepperboxstudio.com

  • Erin Barra

    To perhaps explain myself better, I am by no means saying that Santigold is the only woman in the game, hence the asterisk in the above paragraph. I was referring to her as one of the only females to have broken through to being a household name. Are there others? Of course. The point is not to articulate who is important and who is not, but rather emphasize the lack of role support in the industry. That being said, thank you for engaging in the dialogue, because I truly think it is an important one.

  • Women’s Audio Mission

    years of chicks in audio here at Women’s Audio Mission and still going strong! WAM trains
    over 650 middle school girls and 200 women every year (over 5,100
    total)! 138 women placed in paid audio positions and 83 professional
    credits on albums and oscar nom films. We like to focus on progress. A
    lot of male allies out there as well.

  • Gavin Skal

    If the question is becoming a household name, I think we’re missing the point. I’d wager that if you asked most laypeople to name a producer, you’d get few responses outside of Quincy Jones and Brian Eno, maybe Dr. Luke and Max Martin among younger people, but even then I’m not wholly convinced how known they are by name outside industry circles. If you were to ask lay people to name an engineer, most laypeople I’ve encountered don’t even understand what that is. All I’m saying is that we’re in a largely behind-the-scenes role, so who’s a household name isn’t necessarily a useful metric.

    As to the larger issue at hand, my experience in the studio system is that fewer females applied for internships to begin with, and, unfortunately, many of those the studio management hired as “eye-candy” (the manager in question was quite open about that, and while I won’t disclose his name, I will say I have very little respect for the man). Most of those were aspiring singers and songwriters, only one or two showed interest in assisting sessions and learning production/engineering (please note, this is all strictly anecdotal), but it did seem that the upcoming talent pool was drier on the female side, and my guess is that this has largely to do with education, career guidance, and mentorship for school-aged girls. I love what WAM is doing to address some of those issues and would love to see more.

  • avidmarianna

    Same thing on the Video side of the house as well. Not many of us engineer/techies types and video editors out there. Never has affected any work for me – Apple, Media 100, Avid…. but not enough women in the industry. Definitely a culture thing.

  • La Cosa Preziosa

    fellow commenters, do we really have to make this a cranky roll call of what woman was mentioned in the article, and who wasn’t? Rather, fair play to Erin for writing and for taking the time to reignite this debate. As a professional sound artist who is also currently expecting (and working through it), her note on pregnant women was particularly appreciated. “Of all the women seen in the studio, the pregnant woman is the rarest of them all.”: so are articles related to the challenges involved. Nice to see it mentioned here.