Many industries are still a bit low in the diversity aspect but the stats in the audio technology industry are pretty astounding. Women still make up less than five percent of people in the industry, which covers creative technology for music, radio, film, television, and the internet. The number of women in the industry is actually so low that it’s never even been formally counted.
Terri Winston founded Women’s Audio Mission with the intention to change all of that, and the organization has been making huge efforts to provide education and opportunity since they first opened their doors in 2003. The San Francisco-based studio was and remains the only professional recording studio in the world that was built and is run by women.
The studio offers a variety of classes for females, both adults, and children. WAM has placed over 500 women in tech jobs at companies like Google, Pixar, NPR, and Animal Planet. (To name a few.) Their nonprofit Girls on the Mic program provides free classes to 1,500 underprivileged girls in the Bay Area, a number that’s going to double when they open their second location in Oakland this July. Those classes offer access points to acoustics, physics, electronics, computer science, and math, through tie-ins to music, media, journalism, and creative technology.
WAM welcomes clients to the studio that range from civil rights activist Clarence Jones to the San Francisco Zoo. The studio has produced and recorded albums for over 120 artists from 21 countries. I had the absolute privilege of speaking to Terri about the organization and its necessity.
Tell me about your background and the idea to start Women’s Audio Mission, to begin with.
I started out as a musician but I was really good at technology so I ended up in traditional electrical engineering school at Purdue, and I was also playing music at the same time. It was really hard to get into a recording studio, you couldn’t get into one unless a label paid for it. We got into the studio with Lenny Kaye [of the Patti Smith Group] and that was really transformative for me, to see all this technology and how it was connected to music and that’s when things all came together.
As for the inspiration for WAM, I was a professor at the City College of San Francisco for about a decade and the school wanted me to focus on getting more women into the programs there in the broadcasting department. They actually had a large number compared to other schools, 12 or 15 percent. Eventually, I got the enrollment up over 50 percent and a lot of schools started to contact me about how I did that. That’s what WAM grew out of. Instead of me going to different schools why not put it in one place…it snowballed really quickly. We’ve been riding that tiger ever since.
You offer classes for both children and adults, how does that work?
We’re serving more middle school girls than we are adults at this point, about 1,500 women and girls every year. We partner directly with [chronically underserved] schools, we have 25 partners and are about to open a new location in Oakland to reach more. Then we’ll probably reach 3,000 girls every year.
One thing that people don’t know about us is that when we’re working with the girls it’s not all about music and audio, it’s actually about STEM. Science, technology, engineering, match. How all of those things intersect with our industry. A lot of times we get girls who didn’t know they could do this, they thought they had to be a musician or a singer. Well no actually you can write code, you could be the live sound engineer. I think the thing that’s different about us is that we’re using the music part as a big carrot, like hey this is a really cool space but you could be a software engineer, you could become a scientist, or you could become a musician, great that’s cool too. But they need to be exposed to all these things.
The population that we’re serving is the most vulnerable one, 73 percent don’t have access to a computer or a mobile device, 78 have never touched a musical instrument, 30 to 40 percent high school dropout rate. This is a population that needs to have all those options presented to them and also taught how to get there.
Let’s talk about this five percent stat…women make up only 5% of audio tech across music, TV, everything?
Yes. It’s actually less than five percent, that’s a generous statistic. That number is so small that no one’s counting it. You know how it is when you look in the room and there’s one person out of 1,000, you can visually go okay, that’s less than one percent. Everybody’s looking for this rigorous study…go ahead and do it. It’s not a hard and fast number, we said let’s be generous but it’s less than five percent. Once we start topping ten percent we’re going to be really excited.
Why do you think that number is still so small? There are a lot of predominantly male-oriented industries that have diversified faster, why is the representation of women so low with audio technology, any technology?
It’s a tough environment and when there’s an environment that hasn’t had diversity at all, and I’m not even talking just women, we focus on women because that’s what we know how to do, I’m talking about everything. This is an industry that needs help. It’s hard for that one person, I think it’s discouraging.
We’ve made huge strides getting women into the educational part of this, and I think you’re seeing more DJ’s, but in the more hardcore engineering side of it, it’s still tough. We’ve placed over 500 women now [in tech jobs] and the reason I think that’s working is that we’re doing a high-touch pipeline with the company. Dolby Labs is a great example where they’re like “we want to do this…and we want to do this with you.” I’m dealing with them directly. They’re really into it, it’s great to see a whole company get mobilized. We get tons of support all the way around.
Do you feel like social media is helping increase the exposure to more job options out there or do you feel like that hasn’t really been tapped into on that level?
That’s an interesting question. We definitely tap into it but we haven’t cracked the code on that. What we’re trying to do is show women in these different roles as much as we can but again the percentages are so small it starts to get difficult, you run out. We’re also trying to show the girls in the classrooms doing different things. I think social media in some ways is a self-fulfilling prophecy, you promote it and it stays in that bubble. I do wonder if the things that people post, like cats, how do you get diversity in the content. Sometimes we’ll be like “this will be the best thing to study” and then we post it and no one’s interested in it. It doesn’t fit into what’s popular even though it’s the coolest thing…it will probably be popular in like ten years. We’re always questioning why one class is full and no one wants to take another. If I had the answer to that I’d be really happy.
Do you think there will be more opportunity to change traditional school curriculum so that it’s more active in this way? Geared towards different styles of learning?
I think a lot of this happens outside of the traditional environment because our country is not investing in education. I’ve taught in the public system and everybody is exhausted, you don’t have time to innovate because people aren’t investing in the programs. You’re seeing nonprofits and people from the outside because somebody has to do it. We’re responding to a need that nobody is focusing on. I think we are starting to see [changes], hopefully, we will.
We were funded by Google to do this whole thing about how to get girls into this industry and we were brought in as an example along with 150-200 nonprofits from around the world. It was really interesting that we were the only one that was focusing on what it is exactly that are girls interested in. No one’s spending time finding out what the girls respond to, we’ve been doing that for 14 years.
My instructors will say to me “that’s great Terri but there’s no way, they’re not going to be interested in that. But if we did this, they’d totally be down.” And then I’m like “ok do that, that’s perfect.” That’s the engagement problem that everybody has been running in circles around…you just have to be in the classroom and really want to find out what it is. Girls don’t just like gadgets for the sake of them being gadgets, they want to solve something, or connect with people, or showcase something.
Do you have plans to expand more?
Yeah, definitely. Oakland is opening up in July. We’re doing a conference in Boston… we’re exploring where the demand is, where the best location would be on the east coast. We have interest in Detroit…we’re looking at Boston… I have a lot of people that want us in Brooklyn. We’re small, 5.5 person staff, but we will do it eventually.