This article was first published in the Australasian Sound Recordings Association (ASRA) journal 2020, part of a collection by panelists at the 2018 conference held at Studio 301 in Sydney. Contributions by the other participants is a great insight into the experiences of women in the studio recording industry.

How far have we come? How do we encourage and include more women in recording and music technology?

As a studio and live sound engineer, producer, musician, songwriter and audio lecturer, who started out in the music industry over 20 years ago, I have mixed feelings about how far we have come and a hopeful attitude for the direction we are headed in terms of gender diversity in the audio and recording industries.

Since the #metoo movement surge of new wave feminism in 2017, society in general is better at acknowledging and discussing the abuses of power and the gender imbalance in positions of power that impacts women. In the music industry there have been positive changes such as; an increased visibility of female musicians and producers, the uncovering of lesser-known female role-models from our past, more gender-balanced festival line-ups, and gender quotas in industry awards categories. There are many more women on the live sound circuit. Venues are hyper aware of sexual harassment issues and most have implemented prevention and reporting strategies which have really helped to change the scene in a positive way. Young men are also much more likely to call out bad behaviour and being a sleaze is definitely not cool. Reflecting on my own journey has highlighted how the well-documented issues facing women in STEM and audio in particular, weave through my own experiences.

What challenges do women face in maintaining a career?

In the early 2000’s at the start of my audio career, I was doing a lot of live sound. Despite really enjoying the work and being good at it I remember making the conscious decision not to do live mixing. Fielding questions like “Do you really know what all those knobs do?” and comments such as, “I didn’t think chicks knew that kind of stuff” and dealing with drunken patrons hitting on me, wore down my enthusiasm. Back then I thought it was part of the job and not something I could do much about. Tired of facing the assumption that women are less capable with technology, and having to deal with continual sexual harassment, I decided to seek out studio work. I was at Bakehouse Studios as their first female studio engineer for quite a few years. I distinctly remember telling the owner that I wanted to be able to wear a skirt. The studio felt like a safer environment, you were only dealing with musicians and not the general public, so there was less likelihood of your skills being inappropriately challenged or being hounded by drunken men.

When I started playing in bands again, and as a young engineer I wasn’t aware of any women with dual careers in audio and music so I felt I had to choose between these two pathways. The male engineers around me were getting the significant work. I wasn’t confident enough to hustle for records, and I definitely didn’t have the resources to invest in my own gear or space. I felt that people didn’t think I was good enough and questioned my abilities more so than men even though I was doing a lot of work. This led to a long break from audio. I was touring, living overseas and released 3 x solo albums. If I could speak to my younger self, I would definitely tell her to mix her own records. Instead, when I was writing my own music, I didn’t consider I had the skills to mix as well as produce my own records and it didn’t occur to me that I should record and mix bands I was playing in. My own subconscious bias meant that I was effectively discounting my own skills in choosing to work with men and in turn discounting other women too. When I was instructing an engineer during a session, a comment that sticks out was “you shouldn’t know how to do that”. I also clearly remember as a teenager asking how guitar amplifier worked and being told “you don’t need to know that”. These small incidents that suggest that women shouldn’t know and don’t need to know how technology works add up to accumulative confidence issues for a woman.

When I came back to Melbourne, I realised how much I missed being in the studio and found work as an in-house engineer at Newmarket. Returning to audio after a break required a real effort to rebuild my confidence but in a short amount of time I was making records, producing my own music, and was also asked to teach studio recording.

I recently also started mixing live shows again. I realised I should be out there as a role model, not only for a new generation of female sound engineers but to increase the visibility of experienced female engineers to the general public. Although I have noticed an increase in female live sound engineers myself, and am part of educating new woman in that role, sometimes people also look at me like an alien if I am working in a dress and wearing make-up. These days I dress the way I want to rather than in a way I think will make me invisible to sexual predators like I was doing in my 20’s.

After a few years of research into Melbourne Recording Studio Histories for an honours year thesis that I am re-examining for my current Masters, it became very clear how exclusively white-heterosexual-male popular music recording spaces were, and still are. After multiple interviews and realising the extent of male hegemony, my project to document a significant part of local history also became a search for female role models. I found one woman working on high profile popular music releases pre-2000’s in Melbourne, and that is Karen Hewitt (also on the panel). There may be others, but to date Hewitt is the only known woman to me who managed to infiltrate the heavily male-dominated Melbourne commercial music recording scene. This was during the peak of large format recording studios lasting until the late-90’s. The level of gender disparity in popular music studio production is evident when you consider that only one woman, Virginia Read (also a panelist), in the 30-plus year history of the award has managed to secure an ARIA for technical production.

My earliest role-model was a mentor I met in my teens. Sally Laver offered me my first audio work after I finished sound production studies. She was a highly sought after live sound engineer who owned Pan recording & rehearsal rooms in Geelong. Laver was incredibly supportive and made an effort to employ women for her festival productions. There weren’t many of us, but she gathered us together. Her support gave me the confidence to pursue live sound work in Melbourne and approach studios for work.

“……there is a bit of a ceiling for us (women), especially mixers. We don’t usually get a look in with the big touring bands. We can’t quite break into that next level. I think some people are scared that girls can’t do the job. With production they assume girls can’t lift and load. I can lift a quad box, no dramas.” Sally Laver quoted by Mary Mihelakos (2009)

Laver is petite and feminine but feisty, knows how to handle herself, and obviously how to safely lift a heavy load. I think the glass ceiling Laver speaks of in a live mixing is being pried open by an upcoming generation of female engineers. I still think the glass ceiling of the recording studio, especially at the high end of popular music recording, is quite impenetrable for women. Laver’s tastes were quite underground, so the recording projects that came out of her studio weren’t high profile. There are likely a number of under-documented women in recording history with a lot of skill who have done a lot of recordings out of small studio spaces.

The high-profile releases that reached mainstream culture however is where men maintain an exclusive stronghold. Profile is power, and in this highly competitive sector, I truly believe that the ‘boys club’ don’t actually want women at the highest tier. Dismantling power structures to make way for a more diverse industry requires people to make space, but I think there is a justifiable fear that if women start to infiltrate the control rooms of high-profile music recordings, they might upstage the men, or somehow strip them of their power. Not only does the attitude exist that women are not as capable with technology, I have also observed the incredulity and fear of some men when an empowered, knowledgeable women in audio tech demonstrates an equal or superior technical ability or knowledge.

I think this is related to issues surrounding masculine identity and power, and men who have been conditioned to behave with authority and superiority towards women. Women in tech learn to accept and sometimes expect ‘mansplaining’ and men taking over a situation. I am definitely guilty of allowing this to happen without speaking up, especially when the assumption that you are less knowledgeable than a man comes from a person in a position of power or authority over you. There are plenty of men who are very aware of these dynamics who make a concerted effort to treat women as equals, to make space for women, and share their knowledge in a respectful exchange.

In my history research I noticed that many of the male engineers and producers in high profile roles in the recording industry had ‘in the right place at the right time’ stories. They were in studio spaces doing lesser roles and at a significant point in their careers were offered an opportunity that leveraged them. This is the basis of how a ‘boys club’ culture naturally developed in recording studio culture by hiring junior male staff, or friends. In the development of an industry and as an easy solution to emergency staffing issues, it makes sense, but it can create long-term problems of lack of diversity once that industry grows. I’ve seen this style of recruitment in action, and attempted to highlight how much this impacts the cultural mindset for future generations. It takes exceptional leadership and foresight to look outside of the inner circle when awarding opportunities, and also an overall policy to allow those who want change to be able to act on that. When a sector grows as a hegemonic closed culture, it breeds inequality, abuses of power and narrowed group perspectives. Unfortunately, often those in power are oblivious to the impact their decisions have on those around them and the future of the industry.

Availability of cheaper home recording gear, and a growing culture of e-learning has helped empower women to embrace computer technology to compose and produce release quality music ‘in-the-box’, away from the male gaze. Female computer-based music producers are now in abundance. This required the blended skills of an audio mixer and producer. Women can acquire a body of knowledge and experience in the comfort of their own spaces before they make the choice to engage with the larger audio community and step into a male-dominated sphere of audio engineering.

My advice to a woman with the dream of becoming a studio engineer is to find up-and-coming artists, stick with her audio education, make the most of the facilities and mentors, invest in her own gear, be conscious of underselling herself, build up a body of work she is proud of, seek out mentors that she can turn to for advice, and put herself out there in the world. Ideally, she would also create her own space. For a woman to have a mixing room of her own is key to developing her skills without someone looking over her shoulder unless she has invited that person to be there.

I am in the unique position of being part of a community of engineers with a new studio model that supports women to develop their own sustainable freelance businesses. Sharing the cost of a recording complex with multiple mixing rooms and a shared tracking space is a way of creating an affordable ‘room of one’s own’ during an allotted time. The male engineers who started Rollingstock Recording Rooms made a concerted effort to include a mix space solely for women with the arrangement between the engineers such that no one is working under someone else. This has nurtured the talents of at least 5 female producers and engineers in the few years I have been a part of that community.

What are the issues facing mid-career women wanting to balance having a family with this sort of work?

Apart from what I have mentioned, I think the glass ceiling is a factor. Women get to a certain level in recorded music and feel that they can’t develop their careers any further so they might use their skills in film, television and advertising. (There are obviously women whose first choice of career is in these audio sectors but most women I have met and read about start their audio careers with their main interest in popular music recording.) This is also in part to having to navigate ‘boys club’ culture in leadership. I don’t think the choice to have children is any more of an issue for women in recording as it is for alternate career choices. Work-life-balance in a freelance, competitive music industry is a continual challenge and might also be a factor in women changing careers. The flexibility of a freelance career can also work well for people who have children. I mostly know men in the industry who are parenting as well as working in the studio, and their partners usually also have separate careers and they share the parenting.

What do your male peers say?

I surveyed as many of my male peers as I could to see what their honest views were on gender diversity in audio and music technology. There were men who believed that there are less women because they are less interested in technology; that it is an even playing field and women just don’t have the skills and nous to secure the work; and if they create space for women, then they would be losing out on work. These outdated but common beliefs show just how ingrained the unconscious bias, fear of loss of power, and ignorance over the challenges that women face in technology that have already been mentioned. There are also men with more realistic healthy attitudes who understand that women as a minority are compromised in learning, suffer from confidence issues and are as equally capable.

As an educator what have you noticed are the reasons your female students leave the industry?

I haven’t been teaching long enough to survey student alumni careers but I have noticed the intake and retention of students at the institutions I have taught at is about the same as when I studied in the late 1990’s. A handful of enrolments with a majority male cohort with maybe one out of that handful graduating. There were about 5 women enrolled in the course I finished in 1999 and I think I was the only female in that group to finished. In speaking to other women about their education experiences over the years, as with my story of stepping away from the industry and returning, it is pretty clear that having to constantly combat unconscious bias from others, working in an environment that is persistently challenging you to prove your abilities more so than others, as well as navigating the sexual politics of working in a male-dominated environment is sometimes too exhausting. I’ve noticed too that in some cases young women will finish their audio education and not have the confidence to use their new skills in the industry. So, women may not enter the audio sector even after they have studied sound. Things are a little better now post- #MeToo, so hopefully this means that less women give up for these reasons already mentioned.

What else is there to do?

In summary, I think we need to support women throughout their careers to provide role models for future generations. Education scholarships and mentorship programs. Educating male educators about the complexity of challenges women face and developing emotional intelligence skills to pass on to male students. Mid-career support programs and industry re-connection programs for women who have taken a break from audio. Creating platforms for women to tell their stories. Having meaningful discussions with men in all areas of the industry about their views and concerns. Recruitment methods in leadership that look beyond what is visible, (not just hiring your mates) in a legitimate effort to diversify the workplace. Encourage women to work together, to stick it out when it is tough, and reach out to others for support to do the best work they can, and put themselves out there.

Strong, C. (2019). Towards a Feminist History of Popular Music: Re-examining Writing on Musicians and Domestic Violence in the Wake of #MeToo. In L. Istvandity, S. Baker, & Z. Cantillon (Eds.), Remembering Popular Music’s Past: Memory-Heritage-History (pp. 217-232). Anthem Press.
Peterson, Pamela W., (1980) ‘History of Women in Audio’, AES convention paper, New York 1980. This convention paper presented 40 years ago, raises issues that still impact women today and issues that I have personally faced in my audio journey.

S. McCarthy Buckingham, M. Ronan, (2019), ‘Factors Contributing to Gender Imbalance in the Audio Industry’, Limerick Institute of Technology, Moylish Park, Co. Limerick, Audio Engineering Society, Dublin, Ireland, Convention paper #10159. Findings include the need for role models.
Women have historically felt the need to desexualise themselves to navigate a male-dominated environment.
Something I also found fearful after having been physically assaulted by a drunken boyfriend a few years earlier. I believe that a focus on men’s mental health and development of a healthy connection to emotional expression for men would also have a great impact on male-dominated work spaces.

In my research there were female engineers mentioned who worked in advertising, television or film departments but no others who were engineering popular music releases.
The skills required for all of these engineering roles are similar, if not directly transferrable, so it is not a case that women weren’t skilled enough to be in the control room of popular recording artists. They just didn’t have the opportunities that would provide them with a significant pathway to a career in popular music recording.
Pamela W. Peterson, (1980), ‘History of Women in Audio’, AES Conference paper, 66th Convention, New York.

Mary Mihelakos, (2007), ‘Australia’s Great Industry Unsung’, Australian Musician,, Nov 29, 2007. Quoting Sally Laver.
Mansplaining explained- The experience of a man explaining something in an authoritative manner to someone who is already knowledgeable on a chosen topic. This correlates to studies that suggest men are more likely to bluff their way through situations and more comfortable with ‘faking it til they make it’. Men often rate their abilities higher than women, and are conditioned to feel they are entitled to override women in conversations and take leadership in group situations.

Kray, Laura J. and Kennedy, Jessica A., (2017), ‘Changing the Narrative: Women as Negotiators and Leaders’, California Management Review 1-18, Berkley Haas

Mathew, M., Grossman, J., & Andreopoulou, A., ‘Women in Audio: contributions and challenges in music technology and production’, Audio Engineering Society, Los Angeles, Convention paper #9673.

Mayhew, E., (1999), Women in Popular Music and the Construction of “Authenticity”
Sociology Program, Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies 4.1 (June 1999) University of Wollongong

McCarthy Buckingham, S., Ronan, M. (2019), ‘Factors Contributing to Gender Imbalance in the Audio Industry’, Limerick Institute of Technology, Moylish Park, Co. Limerick, Audio Engineering Society, Dublin, Ireland, Convention paper #10159. Findings include the need for role models.

Music Victoria, (2015) Women in the Victorian Contemporary Music Industry, report.

Peterson, Pamela W., (1980) ‘History of Women in Audio’, AES convention paper, New York 1980.

Richards, J. (2016), Shifting Gender in Electronic Music DIY and Maker Communities
Contemporary Music Review, Vol 35., No. 1, 40-52.
Sandberg, Sheryl, 2010, ‘Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders’, Ted Talks (Accessed September 2018)

Strong, C. (2019). Towards a Feminist History of Popular Music: Re-examining Writing on Musicians and Domestic Violence in the Wake of #MeToo. In L. Istvandity, S. Baker, & Z. Cantillon (Eds.), Remembering Popular Music’s Past: Memory-Heritage-History (pp. 217-232). Anthem Press.