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Q&A: WAM founder Terri Winston on working towards gender equality in the audio industry

Tara Lepore 13 September 2017
Q&A: WAM founder Terri Winston on working towards gender equality in the audio industry

Across the pond, the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) has been doing great things to redress the gender imbalance in the professional audio industry. Here, the US organisation’s founder and executive director, Terri Winston, explains why such initiatives are so vital…

Tell us about the origins of WAM?

WAM started as a club for the women in the Sound Record Arts degree program that I had started at City College of San Francisco when I was a professor there. I managed to get the enrolment of women in the program up over 50% and after our first showing at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in 2003, everything took off.

We had gear donated to start a studio and a lot of interest in how we were addressing gender inequity in audio. I founded WAM as its own non-profit entity in 2003 and have been riding the tiger ever since. We own and run the only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women here in San Francisco where we now train over 1,500 women and girls every year and just opened a second location in Oakland that will allow us to reach over 3,000 girls every year by 2020.

What are the organisation’s main goals?

WAM addresses two critical issues: the fact that less than 5% of the people creating and shaping all of the sounds, messages and media in our lives are women, and the alarming decline in women/girls enrolling in college STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) programmes (a 70% decline since 2000).

Girls are not getting the proper messages in their lives to succeed and become leaders because less than 5% women are involved in the production of those messages. WAM believes that if girls learn to create the music and media to amplify their own voices & creatively solve problems, they will create meaningful change in messages about women, decrease the gender gap in tech and become the next innovators and leaders.

Girls are not getting the proper messages in their lives to succeed and become leaders because less than 5% women are involved in the production of those messages

Terri Winston

What have you achieved since launching? Have you seen a rise in the number of women working in the industry?

Over the last 14 years, WAM has provided over 2,500 courses to 10,000 girls and young women in professional audio, recording engineering, music production and STEM. WAM has placed over 500 women in positions at Dolby Labs, Google, Pixar, Electronic Arts, Skywalker Sound, Sennheiser, Facebook, NPR, Pandora, Comedy Central, on tour with Tracy Chapman and in most venues in across Northern California. Our graduates have worked on projects with Kronos Quartet, Angelique Kidjo (2015 Grammy win), Tune-Yards, National Geographic, Academy-Award nominated soundtrack to the film Dirty Wars, sound design for Harry Potter films and for acclaimed authors Salman Rushdie and Cleve Jones.

WAM has attracted national attention. The White House Office of Social Innovation studied WAM’s innovative approach to attracting underserved girls and girls of colour to technology studies, as well as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who recently commented that the San Francisco Bay Area is “a cradle of dynamic thinking and a relentless generator of innovation”. Women’s Audio Mission’s programs build upon a standard of excellence and serve as a model for the nation.

How important are initiative likes this for raising the profile of women in the industry and creating more opportunities for career progression?

It’s extremely important for girls to be exposed to the wide variety of technology career paths available including non-traditional careers where women are greatly under-represented, such as audio and tech. Women’s Audio Mission has made great strides with our programs for girls which provide consistent access to role models and mentors as well as hands-on experience across a wide variety of career paths that intersect or use audio skills – computer science, acoustics, physics, electronics, etc.

What are the biggest obstacles facing women looking either to start a career in the industry or progress further after they have established themselves?

The biggest obstacle is that we still have a pervading culture that isn’t beneficial for women entering or staying in the industry. It’s an industry pretty far behind in terms of diversity and inclusion, so much so that there is very little mastery in the appropriate language. We still have to deal with the questions and comments about whether women are suited for this work or worse yet, crazy statements that our brains are different and not able to perform as well as a man’s in an audio environment. Then there is the other common comment that women just aren’t interested in audio. As cutting edge as our industry is in technology, one would hope would translate to gender equity and diversity but we are just not there yet.

We still have to deal with the questions and comments about whether women are suited for this work or worse yet, crazy statements that our brains are different and not able to perform as well as a man’s in an audio environment

Terri Winston

And what are the biggest opportunities for women in the industry at the moment?

The biggest growth areas in audio with the greatest demand for graduates is in the areas that cross over into computer science as well as large scale audio/visual design, followed closely by game audio. These are places that require extra training/education but are also wide open for women right now.

How has the rest of the industry embraced WAM?

Women’s Audio Mission has been so fortunate to have such strong partnerships and support especially from companies like Dolby Laboratories, who not only made a significant financial investment but also hired 14 of our graduates and now is providing access to women engineers as mentors. 90% of the equipment used in our courses and in our studio has been donated by partner manufacturers like Avid, Audient, iZotope, Shure, Mackie, Universal Audio, Barefoot, Mojave, Softube, Ableton, Manley Labs, AEA, AKG, Eventide, SoundToys and more. And over the years we have built such a strong community of male allies as well – almost 50% of our social media subscribers are men. We can’t do this alone and it’s very exciting to see more and more people joining our family and helping us move the needle on gender equity.

What advice would you give to women considering a career in audio?

Jump in! Follow your curiosity, face your fears and find a mentor. Women’s Audio Mission is a worldwide community that supports women and girls entering professional audio. We offer online training at SoundChannel.org if you would like to get an introduction to audio studies and our social media network reaches over 30,000 people from around the world. Also, come visit us at the upcoming Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York, October 18-20.

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