Picture a scientist in a white lab coat holding a test tube up to the light. Or a brilliant computer geek hunched over a keyboard. These are stereotypes we associate with STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. But there are a lot of industries involving STEM skills that don’t fit those stereotypes.
Movies, television, video games and music are central to pop culture, and none of that would be possible without the work of audio engineers. Audio engineers are just that: engineers. They work with sine waves and electronics, they push buttons and turn knobs. There’s a stereotype there, as well: that all this work is done by men. Some of this is based in fact; according to some estimates, 95% of all audio engineers are men. But that’s changing.
Terri Winston runs Women’s Audio Mission, or WAM, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to teaching the recording arts to women and girls. According to Winston, WAM is the only professional recording studio in the world run entirely by women.
Winston founded WAM 11 years ago when she was a professor of recording arts at City College. She first learned to work with sound as a musician, describing herself as “an old punk rocker”. She’s also an electrical engineer, or, as they say in the biz: “double E”.
“It’s funny, because there are a lot of audio people that are double E’s, and they’ll say that: ‘Hey, double E’! And we bond over it,” she says.
Winston is part of a rare club: women make up only a small fraction of all double E’s. She’s a self-admitted gearhead. She is really into microphones.
“They all sound different, look different,” she says. “Different materials, different transducers inside. It’s like when people talk about wine and they’re obsessed, that’s how I am about microphones.”
Winston knows her kind of obsession is still unusual for girls, but it’s something she wants to see more of.
“Girls are not socialized to be the gadget people,” she says. “Just seeing them with a microphone is the most crazy empowering thing to witness. The amount of energy that comes out of that is better than caffeine. It’s incredible.”
Winston says music and sound are perfect for getting girls and women interested in subjects they might not approach on their own.
“If we say we’re going to teach you math today or science, or the physics of sound, you know-- they’re going to run for the hills,” she says. “But if we listen to this Rihanna song, and say ‘Let’s break it down.’ Then it’s like: ‘Oh, music is math. Hey, this is 4/4, this is how you count it.’”
WAM students take their new physics and math skills, and use them-- to make sound for movies, to create their own podcasts, and to record music live and in-studio.
Winston says unleashing creativity and thinking critically are just as important as mastering the technical stuff. She says her own science and engineering background has taught her to be a confident and self-sufficient problem-solver.
That can-do attitude is at the heart of Women’s Audio Mission. Winston says there a lot more women in the industry now, but there’s more work to be done. Even now she still runs into people who underestimate her just because she’s a woman.
“It happens all the time,” she says. “But I think it happens just as much to somebody at Starbucks. It’s a pervasive thing. I chose to start Women’s Audio Mission to focus on the thing I knew really well, and I knew that we could change it.”