Jul 29, 2018
by Catharine Wood Los Angeles, CA
In the last few years, especially, I’ve been asked more and more about “what’s it like being a ‘female’ engineer, composer, producer”...and “why aren’t there more of you [women]?”...as if all of a sudden, it’s occurring to people that women exist in these fields. I’ve worked professionally in music for 17 years - with 13 of those as an audio engineer, music producer and composer in Los Angeles. Graduating from audio engineering school in 2005, I’ve grown accustomed to being the only woman in a room of engineers. I graduated #1 in my class (as the only female)... and was cherry-picked for my first professional studio job in Santa Monica — engineering on worldwide advertising campaigns for premier agencies. At the time, iTunes had recently come out and I was the assistant engineer on several of the first iPod commercials...Spotify hadn’t been founded yet — CD sales were declining. I was the only female engineer at the studio - but was always treated with respect by colleagues.
Based on my personal experience and current published numbers, you can find women working professionally in audio engineering at 5%, music producing 2%, composing 2% and DJ’ing 1%. However, I believe 2018 is the year that the pendulum will shift from asking us “WHY aren’t there more of you” to “WHAT can I hire you to do for my project”...The cat’s out of the bag. I love that the discussion is finally happening - but the only way to incorporate us into the greater fabric of the industry is to hire us...but to hire us — you need to know we exist...and for many prospective female engineers, composers and producers - with the slim percentages displayed above, they may not know their field of interest is even a career option. With physical CDs (and, therefore, liner notes) disappearing from the way listeners consume music - especially in the last 10 years with the succession of Streaming as the main method of listening now - most of us “behind the scenes” contributors have largely become invisible to consumers. Hopefully with streaming services beginning to add digital credit fields this will change.
In addition to being a voting member of the Recording Academy, I am a proud Grammy Producers & Engineers Wing member. Comprised of 6000+ of the recording industry’s top music makers, I gained membership through my professional work as an Engineer. I would speculate that of those 6000+ members, based on the 5% factor, there may only be around 300 female engineer members. In January of this year, I was honored to attend the 60th Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City — and witnessed Janelle Monáe's cogent and inspiring “Time’s Up” speech in-person:
“Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist, but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry: artists, writers, assistants, publicists, CEOs, producers, engineers, and women from all sectors of the business. We are also daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and human beings. We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time's Up. We say Time's Up for pay inequality, Time's Up for discrimination, Time's Up for harassment of any kind, and Time's Up for the abuse of power. Because you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington, it's right here in our industry as well. And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. So, let's work together, women and men, as a united music industry committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay, and access for all women.”
And, ironically that same day, Neil Portnow, the President and CEO of the Recording Academy, inadvertently made his ill-fated “step up” comments when asked by Variety about only ONE solo female artist winning a Grammy during the CBS telecast show (Alessia Cara for Best New Artist...all other televised winners that night were male except Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild & Kimberly Schlapman for Best Country Duo/Group Performance...and Rihanna for her work with Kendrick Lamar on “Loyalty” in the Best Rap/Sung Performance category): “It has to begin with... women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level... [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”
And there we have it; perhaps the most perfectly naive snapshot of where our American culture, unfortunately, currently is when it comes to a perception of females in the music industry. Meant to be supportive but insulting in actuality...as we’ve (as women in music) been “stepping up” for years...decades...and centuries (in the minuscule percentiles)...with, in the engineering-related fields especially, few survivors making it to gainful employment to sustain a full-time career. Why is that? I’ll get to that in a minute.
On January 18, 2018, Billboard published an article asking “Where Are All Of The Female Producers?“...to which Ari Herstand answered with a published list of 150+ “Female Producers You Need To Know” (which I’m proud to be included on alongside Björk, Wendy & Lisa, Linda Perry, Sylvia Massy, and many more). In the Billboard article it states: “...nowhere has that notion been reinforced more than in the Grammy category for Producer of the Year, Non- Classical. Since the trophy was first handed out in 1975, no woman has taken home the golden gramophone. Just a handful of women -- including Janet Jackson, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, and Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin from Prince's band The Revolution -- have been nominated for producing their own music. Only one nominated female producer was not also the recording artist: The Matrix's Lauren Christy in 2004. (The situation is less bleak for producer of the year, classical: Three women have won in that category, including quadruple-winner Judith Sherman. Imogen Heap and Trina Shoemaker have earned Grammys for best engineered album, non-classical.).”
Given the statistics, recent public comments and generally discontented state of the #GrammysSoMale aka “boy’s club” music industry...the Recording Academy has implemented a task force in the Spring of 2018 led by Tina Tchen — Focused on female inclusion and diversity issues, the task force will be charged with identifying "the various barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities throughout the music industry and, specifically, across Recording Academy operations and policies,”...looking at governance, hiring and promotion practices, membership, awards and the Grammys telecast, the Recording Academy said in a statement to Billboard. I believe this is a good step forward - and have seen other similar initiatives popping up at various film studios - including the recent co-piloted Universal-DreamWorks Animation “Inclusive Film Composer Initiative”.
One major factor that I’ve observed as a successful navigator in my chosen fields (Engineering, Producing, Composing): it’s very, very competitive. And you’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but as a woman in today’s music industry, you can’t just be good at your craft to establish your name...You have to be outstanding in every corner of the industry you choose to associate your name with. Networking is mandatory - as is developing respected, long-standing and positive business practices that show a reliable and trusted track record. When your entire income is made behind the scenes, in a referrals-based industry, your name and credits must speak well for you to continue employment. Speaking for myself - though I see it in many of my colleagues (both male and female) - you get into commercial music because it’s something you’re passionate about. You love sounds, music, creating and solutions. Flexibility, perseverance and positivity are keys to success in these fields — and teamwork...because most projects involve several creatives.
So why aren’t there more of us thriving in these male-saturated fields? I had a recent discussion with an old high school friend — who went on to gain her doctorate in Astrophysics — is a leading scholar on black holes — and teaches at university. We debated why there are so few women in STEM fields. We agreed that everyone’s brain power is the same and there is no reason whatsoever that a woman shouldn’t be able to do the same job as a man. I added that there is a social element, at least to my chosen industry, which adds a “boy’s club” X factor which has nothing to do with one’s mental capabilities - but would categorize it as a sort of “social intelligence”. To navigate an industry like the music industry - one must have a “thick skin” and a certain amount of social know-how.
Having grown up a tomboy with a close brother and majority male friends before age 13, I was the only girl playing football with the guys at recess...and hockey...and baseball...the list goes on. Choosing a male-dominated field was a natural, comfortable choice for me - but I realize my experience is far from usual. Communication is critical in any profession - and I’ve never perceived men as different from me in ability, creativity or intelligence. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses - but I’ve never attributed it to gender. I love working with talented individuals.
In this industry, respect is key and earned by demonstrating one’s abilities. It can be hard- earned for a woman (or any minority, for that matter) — but, in my experience, it is the key factor in advancement. That and learning to communicate directly. My advice to women trying to break in? Be yourself, be fearless and passionate about the things you’re good at and don’t rely on having an example to lead the way. The legitimate perspective of “you can’t be what you can’t see” definitely holds water in this case...but I’ve always been a firm believer in the Abe Lincoln approach: “The best way to predict your future is to create it”. Don’t wait. Don’t ask permission. Just do it. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t evolve into a successful player in my chosen fields. I expected it of myself and I work every day towards achieving the goals I set for myself.
I, personally, look forward to the day when the impulse to include gender as a title modifier is no longer “current”; to be defined by gender because of "rarity" instead of skill — this, in my opinion, is the societal hole that I believe we should be trying to dig ourselves out of. However, I fully appreciate that there are many of us out there who prefer to be defined and celebrated as a woman in the field — that equality and equal opportunity should be the goal regardless of how female you are...Or how you define your professional skills as a woman. I celebrate us all — because there is no one way to achieve this common goal of equality in music. If you’re a woman looking to get into this field and looking for a strong woman to look up to - hit me up. My door’s always open: firstname.lastname@example.org — I’ll be happy to point you in a helpful direction as there are many resources available to you.
Catharine Wood Twitter & Instagram @planetwood5163
[Photos Credit: Rodney Chonia]