Monday, October 22, 2012

On Women in Sound Design

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.).

In Conclusion

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)


  1. True story:

    When I was in high school, I got involved in the theater club, and immediately got interested in running the sound board. Someone else had already claimed it for the next production, so I taught myself how to program the lighting console instead. But then, for the next show, which happened to be a musical ("Oklahoma!"), this other guy (also a high school student) showed up and proclaimed that there was no possible way I could ever understand all the complexities of the audio equipment. However, since he was also an actor, he begrudgingly turned over his seat to me for one scene - "But don't touch anything other than THIS FADER!" he insisted. Then he put on his cow costume and went on stage to square dance with a horse.

    In contrast, the freelance guy who programmed the MIDI sequencer for our musicals noticed I had an interest in audio, and spent a couple extra hours of his own time showing me his software and explaining what he did. Do I remember anything about the now-ancient software he was using? No, but what I do remember is that not once did he make any mention of gender differences, or hit on me, or do anything else to imply that my interest wasn't valid or that I wasn't capable of learning it.

    So, does UCI have any sort of high school outreach program? It seems like a little bit of a reality check for kids that age could go a long way towards dispelling certain stereotypes about gender requirements...

    1. Actually, we do! Well, we're starting one. Two of our grad students (Patricia and Josh) are putting together a day-long workshop on Sound Design, specifically for local high school students. They'll be teaching it in early February...

  2. I was incredibly fortunate to be supported by fantastic people when as an actor, I began showing an interest in sound. Yes, they were all men. At no point did I ever feel like I was especially coddled because I am a woman. I thank them so much for that.

    I designed here and there at a theatre out of grad school for a few years, and the house engineer was completely awful to me from Day One. I actually learned a lot from being treated disrespectfully, but it got tiresome when he wouldn't listen to what I had to say. One day, I talked to him about power and frequency locking the transmitters, and he began screaming at me, that I was the worst sound designer ever, that no one actually liked me, that my work was crap... just getting really personal. I let him yell for a minute, then put him on a ten. He screamed at that too, so with every basso profundo note in my body, I roared for him to go on a m****f**** ten. He looked startled, and took a ten. When he came back, I calmly told him that since graduating, I had worked there and that I was the designer, but he fought every decision I made. And that with each passing year, I was getting calmer and smarter, and that he was still staying a complete jerk. And I told him, "I think you have an issue with women with any sort of power." He thought for a moment, and said "Yeah, I think I do." I told him "Well, stop. For all intents and purposes, I'm a short dude." He chuckled a little, and then began listening to what I had to say. From that moment on, I felt like I was actually the designer. A funny story, but yeah, I have definitely encountered moments like this where it is pretty obvious, I am dealing with a man who has issues with women telling him "what to do".

    The higher up I climb, the more I see a male dominated directing and producing field that brings up "their boys". I'd love to hear more thoughts from people about that. I think a lot of the issue is with men artistic directors/producers/directors wanting to work with other guys. I can't really actively fight that, just do the best f*cking job I can do, and hope that I keep climbing that ladder in a good and not-morally-disgusting way.

    I also think that a reason we don't see as many women designers/composers further at the top is because (and I might get a lot of flak for this, but flak away!! I'd love to hear it) is that women, well, have the babies. In not just sound design, I have seen women designers reach a pretty awesome point in their career, have a kid or two, and then began to back down or out of "the game". I think it is wonderful that they have made that very personal choice. But, I don't see as many men designers having to step it down when they have a kid... I have noticed their wives being the primary caretaker, and them coming in when they can. Again, I would love to hear from people about this, but something I have noticed as I figure out next steps. I think their is a cultural thing going on here, and that we don't just see it in sound design but in every single job field out there.

    Overall, I don't view myself as a woman sound designer, and actually, I think it's a little detrimental to think of us in that divisive way... I am a sound designer, pure and simple.

    1. Thanks, Elisheba - I've been having the caretaker conversations with a couple of professional women I know, including my wife (we're child-free right now). You're right that women tend to pull themselves out of the workforce when they have kids - men don't do that as much. I'd like to see more balance there...

  3. Nice article Vinnie.

    The perception that undergrad programs in design/tech are primarily male dominated is interesting to me - and I'm curious if it's true in general. I'm not disputing it - but my experience at Cornish College is quite different. We have always been heavily balanced to female students - about 70% of our current population - in fact, all but one of the Scenic designers, about 3/4 of the Lighting designers, half of the Sound designers are female - true to what i suppose is the stereotype, the balance shifts the other way in costumes and stage management - but, half of our TD students are female too.
    Our faculty is split - female Lighting and Scenic area heads, I cover Sound, male Stage Management and Costume area heads - for TD, we tend to bring in local professionals and those are mostly guys.
    We're a BFA program, and we require students to do the fundamentals in all areas before selecting a concentration, perhaps the non traditional genders of the instructors has an impact.

    Most of my sound design students in the last 10 years have been female - not all by any means, but most.

    I was startled last year to hear an applicant to the program tell me that she didn't have much to show because in her school "girls didn't work in the shop". I thought we'd gotten past that crap, but I guess I was dreaming. (She actually had plenty of stuff to show, it was just organized differently than it might have been if she had been given the respect she deserved in her high school)

    Dave Tosti-Lane
    Performance Production, Cornish College of the Arts.

  4. I was chatting with a friend about this post and she mentioned something really interesting so I will post it for her here.

    Although it's important to look at why women "don't do sound" it's also really important for those of us who DO do sound to talk about WHY we do it. As a woman in this very male dominated world, I think it's really important for me to talk passionately about why I do what I do. I love to talk about my work. And it's important to teach the next generation to love and respect theater, and not just talk about how hard it is (for any gender)

    But I will tell you, I got into sound because a male designer spent the time to get to know me, and look beyond my pathetic excuse for a "portfolio." He (to quote Vinnie) dug deep enough to find the diamond in the rough. And I couldn't be more grateful. I hope I will have many opportunities to be that kind of mentor and friend to another upcoming designer.

  5. Interesting... I, of course, could talk for hours/days/years about this topic. I have. I've been working professionally for 15 years - breaking gender barriers every time I enter a new theatre. This will never change. And now, after 5 years as the head of a sound design program that has successfully recruited 50% women to men ratio, I feel like that's the best way to beat the odds.

    Are we treated fairly, no. I have battled the "why" of this for years. Simply put, we are women. That's the only thing I can come back to every time. It certainly is not talent. I may be biased, but in my opinion, women sound designers hold a subtlety to emotion and a means of manipulation that is inherent to their gender. It makes them excellent sound designers. And I have won as many if not more awards than the men in my region. We have to play the game, we have to know more, and then in the end not care in order to succeed - just like any women pioneering in a the field dominated by men. Thank God the men I've met in the field have been extremely welcoming to me.

    It will always take us longer to succeed, and I have no idea why... But at least we're here, we're good, and we're not going anywhere. I do believe that time will overcome this eventually.

  6. There are a number of people that have been left off this list that should probably be included: Jill BC DuBoff, who has had several Broadway credits, Jane Shaw, who works extensively off-Broadway and regionally, Elizabeth (Betsy) Rhodes who has received a Drama Desk nomination, as well as many women working in sound engineer capacities across the country. I think that this article could be written all over again about minorities and be much more accurate. Finally, in an article that is about encouragement, it seems out of place to write "the percentage of women sound designers who are talented is vastly higher than the percentage of men sound designers who are talented". That's just my opinion.

    1. I very much agree with Lindsay about that comment... it's a divisive comment, of the "girls are better than boys, no boys are better than girls, no..." playground world. As a community, let's drop all of that. People are people are people.

    2. LIndsey - yep! Could have written it about African Americans, or Indian Americans, or any other group of minorities. But most of the conversations I have about under-represented groups in Sound are about women, so I wrote about women.

      And yes, you're entitled to your opinion about the percentage of talented designs as broken down by gender (or ethnicity, or geography, or whatever). I get to have mine too ;)

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