'We are listening': Leslie Gaston-Bird on the importance of AES's new diversity and inclusion committee

The Audio Engineering Society (AES) introduced a Diversity and Inclusion Committee at its New York convention in October, to promote and encourage diversity in the industry. Tara Lepore spoke the society’s western region vice president Leslie Gaston-Bird about the problems facing underrepresented groups and the committee’s aims for the future...
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Tell us why AES decided to set up an Inclusion and Diversity committee.

I was encouraged to run for vice president of the Western Region (USA and Canada) for the AES last year. When I found out I had been elected, I felt an enormous sense of responsibility as the first African American to sit on AES’ Board of Governors. I am active on social media and follow and participate in groups like SoundGirls.org and Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), and the conversations happening in those venues are ones that our industry needs to hear. I think by having a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the AES is not just saying they welcome everyone, which they always have, but that we are ready to make changes within our own organisation and support the great work that is already being done effectively by other groups.

What will be the committee’s main goals?

One of the first ways to help support changes in the industry is to do some research and provide useful demographic data. A common talking point is that less than 5% of audio professionals are women. However, that number was drawn from empirical data, meaning that women in the profession looked around themselves and usually found they were the only woman on a team, or one of very few. Some people think the number is much less, others are more optimistic. The AES is in a position to try to get some real numbers, and by doing so, can paint a more accurate picture. Even if we find we have a 10 or 15% rate of involvement, that’s still short of the 20% number quoted for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) occupations. By providing this data, we can help organisations advocate for funding to help boost those numbers with programming geared towards women and underrepresented fields.

How important are initiatives like this to increase diversity in the audio profession?

It’s important that we, as a society, are not left out of the conversation about diversity. This sends a message that we are not passive in our efforts and that we are listening and willing to act where we can. It is also necessary to note that we should pay attention to regional differences: for example, the United States is different to Poland; different universities have more diverse student populations in their recording programmes; and diversity can also mean things other than race or gender. In that sense, we need to acknowledge what diversity really means. Diversity and inclusion are more than buzzwords; the fact is that communities that are more diverse can accomplish more, and individuals in those communities feel empowered, whether it’s music recording, software coding, or any number of vocations.

How will you reach out to and listen to members about diversity issues?

We will have a dedicated contact page on our website in the ‘community’ section. We have a committee of over 30 individuals who will advise the AES with input from members in many areas of the world, with hopefully more regions joining soon. Though our committee is very new, I have already been getting referrals from colleagues regarding issues affecting diversity in our industry. As those issues are heard, I invite people with pertinent experience and information to participate on the committee. In fact, there is an open invitation for anyone who is interested in these issues to join us. As we address pressing issues, we forward those along with recommendations for action to AES leadership.

What are the biggest hurdles for underrepresented groups looking to start a career in the industry?

I need to say this very clearly: it’s possible that some members of underrepresented groups do not face any obstacles at all. I know of many people who work hard and who are awesome audio engineers who do not feel the need to identify themselves as a ‘woman engineer’ or a ‘black engineer’. I firmly believe that the audio engineering community is an embracing, welcoming, collegial and helpful place. I probably wouldn’t be working in it otherwise! There are many mentors who welcome the opportunity to work with motivated students in the profession. I was lucky to have such mentors. However, for some there are a wide variety of obstacles, which range from denial of opportunity and disenfranchisement to bullying and harassment, and it’s important that these individuals understand that these problems are not imagined and are not their fault. For example, I had a student who was denied an internship because the studio was not ADA compliant (The Americans with Disabilities Act – ADA – was published in 2010 to set standards for accessible design in the workplace). Businesses with fewer than 15 people do not have to adhere to certain regulations.

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How have things changed since you started out in the industry?

As an educator, I don’t think much has changed. I still see the same, low numbers of women and underrepresented groups enrolling in audio programmes. It does vary from one programme to the next, and from one country to the next. I do, however, think organisations like WAM and SoundGirls are making a difference and things are starting to improve. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the pro audio industry? Joining the Audio Engineering Society is the best career move you can make. The wealth of information, the access to our scholarly journal, conventions and conferences, is very much worth the price of membership. Whether you are a student or a professional there are great resources in our society, including regional sections that you can be a part of to connect with your local audio community. As I said, I generally find our industry to be full of people willing to help, and I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than the AES.

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