It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sound Design and its related fields are lacking anything close to a gender balance. The vast majority of designers in MFA programs are men. The vast majority of designers in the freelance world are men. The vast majority of people who work sound on Broadway, work for sound-related companies, work in sound design training programs, or work on the sound crews in regional theaters are men.
It’s a shame. And we all know it.
So, why aren’t there more women working in sound?
The answer is not because women can’t ‘do’ sound. There are some great women sound designers out there: Janet Kalas, Liz Atkinson, Veronika Vorel, Jana Hoglund, Elisheba Itoop, and the Tony-nominated Cricket Myers all do excellent work (and to my ears, the percentage of women sound designers who are talented is vastly higher than the percentage of men sound designers who are talented). There are great women working in non-design capacities: Liz Coleman & Bridget O’Connor in NYC and Amy Wedel at Baltimore Center Stage are all highly skilled. There are talented women working in the business side of sound: Ellen Juhlin at Meyer Sound is a constant fixture at conferences and events worldwide (and, of course, let’s not forget Helen Meyer herself!). MFA programs around the country are adding women sound designers to their faculties. Eileen Smitheimer at U. Delaware, Victoria Delorio at DePaul, and EunJin Cho at Louisiana State are some of the few female sound design professors, but they’re joined in the (academic) gown this year by two exceptional women: Amy Altadonna at UMass-Amherst and Sarah Pickett at Carnegie Mellon University. Each of these women proves every day that women CAN ‘do’ sound.
The problem is not that there aren’t ANY women who can ‘do’ sound. The problem is that there aren’t ENOUGH women who can ‘do’ sound. The cause for that, I think, is easy to identify: the institutionalized chauvinism inherent in almost every field that could factor in to an interest in sound design. Consider these various ways that a young person might be first introduced to sound and sound design:
- Working on stage crews in school or at local music clubs. Stage crews are often male-dominated, and chauvinism is rampant.
- Composing music. While music performance is much more fairly balanced by gender, composition is still dominated by men.
- Theater Design, except for costume design, is still a male-dominated field (we have eight design faculty in design at UCI, only two of which are women), and it’s easy for educators to overlook interested students who don’t match their image of what a designer should look like.
- Science and the scientific mind. Despite early test scores that reflect equal intellectual aptitude in math and science, girls are often left behind in science classes at an astronomical rate. After many years of work by dedicated educators, this trend is starting to change, but there’s still a lot of work to do in this area.
Say you’re a young woman with an aptitude for sound. In order to discover sound design, you have to thread a gender needle. Maybe you’re good at science, but you have to get through school without giving up. Maybe you’re a bright composer, but you have to have the right opportunities to shine. Maybe you’re technically inclined, but you need to convince the crew chief that you’re not a weakling full of dead weight before you can go near the sound console.
Solve for XX (that’s a chromosome joke…)
If we want to bring more women into sound design, we need to attack on all of these fronts simultaneously, and while none of us can do everything, each of us can help in our own way. At UCI, here’s what we’re doing to promote women in sound:
- Cultivate undergraduate sound designers of both genders. Our first contact with undergraduate students is usually through a class called Drama 50D: Introduction to Sound Design, and it is usually during that class that undergrad students start to discover sound design. We’re very alert to any and all aptitude for design in the class, and we work very hard to fight against the tendency to focus on men during technical discussions.
- Graduate student population. Even though our program is still fairly young, we have a strong history of women in our sound design program. In the last four classes to leave UCI, we’ve had three women (Cory Carrillo, Noelle Hoffman, and Beth Lake), all of whom are doing excellent work now that they’ve left UCI. Having a high rate of women in the program has a number of benefits unconnected to the women themselves: 1) a visible plurality of women is another way to indicate to undergraduate students and potential MFA students that women are welcome in our program, and 2) a plurality of women serves as a deterrent for the men in the program (faculty, staff, and students) to accidentally lapse into chauvinist behaviors.
- Recruiting. Understanding that young women lack the institutionalized support to discover sound design (see the previous section), it’s unsurprising that women are deep in the minority of the application pool. Because of the lack of support that women in sound, science, and/or design often get, we operate under the assumption that the average woman applying to our program has had less experience, mentorship, and encouragement than the average man. That doesn’t mean that she’s any less talented; rather, it just means that on average, she may not appear as strong as the male applicants. To counter this, when we recruit, we take an extra-close look at female candidates, digging deeper to see if what may appear to be an unqualified candidate is actually a diamond in the rough. (I want to be quite clear here – we do not practice any sort of Affirmative Action, and we would not accept an unqualified woman instead of a qualified man. We simply make an extra effort when reviewing female applicants.).
Every few months, I have another conversation with a different colleague about women in Sound Design, both professionally and at UCI. During those conversations, most of what I’ve written here comes up, and I’m happy to have the conversation multiple times to keep the topic at the forefront of our thought. I typically wouldn’t write something like this on the blog; it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m sure I’ve rubbed someone the wrong way. However, we’ve recently started classes for the year, and for the first time since we’ve had a full roster of sound design MFA students, we only have one woman student. The dearth of women is not for lack of trying, but in the last two years, we have not found any women that we thought were ready for UCI Sound. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong places?
At any rate, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I wanted to take a time to reaffirm our commitment to women in sound design and to confirm that I am looking forward to having more women join us in the future. If you’re a woman sound designer (or a man, for that matter), and you are interested in UCI Sound, please drop me an email of introduction and let’s talk.
(note: the views expressed above are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of UCI, UCI Drama, or the UCI Sound Program)