Where are the women gearheads?

Many barriers keep women out of the music scene

Illustration by Justin Ladia

Spotting a woman who works in a music shop is like playing I Spy. There are plenty of women passionate about music, but there are few women gearheads in the music world. According to Women’s Audio Mission, “less than five per cent of the people creating the sounds, music and media in the daily soundtrack of our lives are women.”

I worked on the sales floor at a music shop for a couple of years and sold amps, guitars, drums, band instruments and all their accessories. 

I spent my nights and weekends obsessing over recording and mixing music, I had just started classes in audio engineering, and I had already been playing guitar, saxophone and drums for years. I thought it made perfect sense for me to work there, but it seemed like customers didn’t feel the same way. 

Some customers were surprised that I could restring a guitar, as if that’s a secret only guys are let in on. In the store and on the phone, customers asked me to pass them off to my male coworkers. 

Some crossed the line: I was asked out while on shift, which was horribly awkward. But worse were the few months when a guy memorized my work schedule, came into the store every time I was working, texted me (he knew my number because he sold me my phone) and forced me to hug him. It didn’t stop until I quit the job.

I also identify as gay. I’ve never felt comfortable being open about it at work, because it seemed like one more barrier to being taken seriously at my job.

Young girls aren’t introduced to machines in the same way boys are. Some boys have spent afternoons learning about engines, or at least playing with science and engineering-related toys. Girls are less likely to be encouraged to learn how machines work. Maybe if they were, learning about music gear would seem like more of an option.

Even if women get into gear later in life, online forums for gearheads aren’t the most female-friendly places. The popular forum Gearslutz may ward off women just with its name. 

One thread on Reddit’s guitar subreddit discusses sexism in guitar shops, and some users take the opportunity to be outrageously sexist anonymously.

While some posts actually acknowledge sexism in guitar shops, many comments say that women don’t experience sexism, and guitar and amp boxes should have half-naked women on them because sex sells. As one user wrote, “women have boyfriends, men have hobbies.”

So, there’s a whole lot of work to do. But there are also some opportunities.

I was lucky to have a mentor in audio engineering who believed in me and didn’t treat me any differently for being a woman.

Women’s Audio Mission was also a huge inspiration. The San Francisco-based organization touts itself as the only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women. It offers training programs and workshops, in areas such as audio engineering and mic-building. 

Even though I live in Winnipeg and can’t actually take the workshops, knowing there is a community of women like me makes me want to fight harder in this industry. 

Danelle Cloutier is an audio engineer and journalist in Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 71, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 19, 2017)

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