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A Question Of Sex

Despite the tendency of creative professions to be more liberal than others, women make up only a tiny proportion of producers and engineers in the music industry. Paul Tingen reports on this sad state of affairs.

Arabella Rodriguez: one of the few women recording engineers.

Next to merchant banking, the rock'n'roll industry is one of the most racist and sexist industries in the world, says producer and studio manager Mark St. John candidly. A similar view is expressed by Sadia, the only (!) independent female rock music producer resident in this country: "Rock 'n' roll has been called 'the last bastion of male chauvinism', with a degree of pride by a few unpleasant people, and the recording industry seems to exemplify that. It's still an all-male environment to a frightening degree. The situation really isn't just outrageous; it's nothing short of tragic."

The fact that Sadia is alone amongst probably hundreds of male colleagues seems to prove the point. Are we really talking 1991 here? Some 15 years after the Equal Opportunities Act, and after the country has been savaged or saved, depending on your viewpoint, by a woman Prime Minister? A time when it is generally acknowledged that women can do any job as well as men? As far as women engineers go, the situation is hardly any better. It's difficult to get a clear picture, but a quick count in Kemps International Music Book 1990 finds six female engineers listed amongst 800 male colleagues. Less than 1%.

It really is, when you think about it, shocking, especially given that creative industries tend to be more liberal, more emancipatory minded. For example, insiders estimate the proportion of women working in technical service jobs in London theatres (as sound and lighting engineers etc.), at about 25-30%. In BBC radio, the number of technical sound operators (Studio Managers is the BBC job title) has now settled at the ideal figure of 50%.

Things are also significantly better in the States, where several female producers are working at the highest level, such as Roma Baran (Laurie Anderson) and Linda Goldstein (Bobby McFerrin), and female sound engineers have apparently long ceased to be an oddity in New York and Los Angeles.


So why are there so few female engineers and producers working in the UK recording industry? Why is the UK recording studios anno 1991 one of the deepest emancipatory backwaters in Western civilisation? Are British women just not interested in this kind of work, or is there still a lot of male chauvinism present in studios which is too big a hurdle for them to take?

Conclusive answers to these questions are hard to find. Men are hardly likely to own up to sexist attitudes in public. The few freelance women engineers who have successful careers have to be very diplomatic about what they say, for accusations of sexist treatment could cost them work. It's difficult to get a real insider's picture of what's going on. Some research however did trace one woman who left the recording industry disillusioned, and who was willing to talk about her experiences, albeit anonymously.

Having had substantial experience in live work and in small studios, she started working as a tape-op/assistant engineer in a major London studio during the mid-80s. Her tale is a sad one of continuous discrimination and political intrigue. "When I became popular with some of the clients things would happen like the management giving me time off. When I passed by the studio a week later, the band I'd been working with was very concerned and asked me whether I was OK again. They'd been told that I was ill and wouldn't be expected back for a while. On another occasion an A&R person took me out for lunch. Two months later I heard the story that I'd slept with the guy and that he afterwards requested that I would never be put on his record company's sessions.

"It was all very strange. I couldn't become friends with anybody and if I was requested for a session there were always politics: 'how come she gets this session'. There was another tape-op, a guy, who the management always tried to put on sessions and they'd say to me, 'you can't do it, you haven't got enough experience'. So I said, 'how do you expect me to learn to use an SSL if you have me out in the kitchen washing dishes all the time?'" After two years, and after eventually having built up a not insubstantial track-record, she left the studio and never worked as a recording engineer again.


It might be suggested that this case is a very unusual one, due to bad or prejudiced studio management of this particular studio, or it might be just the tip of the iceberg. By and large though, it appears that her experience was not unique. Sadia, for example, relates an unpleasant tale of another major London studio, which exemplifies the same mentality.

"One of their staff engineers was working as an assistant to an engineer I'd brought in. His attitude was really no good. He refused to make tea for us, for example. Half an hour after I'd asked him, we'd still be waiting for it. So I had to fire him.

"From that moment onwards the politics of the staff of the studio started to work against me. I would come into my room at the time I'd booked it, and find the maintenance team with their feet on the desk. I would have to wait for one-and-a-half hours for my room to be ready. This happened a number of times. And there was this continuous gossiping and giggling behind my back." Another woman who had to struggle with male chauvinism, and who is in a position where she can speak out, is Robin Crookshank Hilton, co-director (with husband Andy) of rental company Hilton Sound.

During the mid and late '70s she was working as a full-time live engineer in the States, working in arenas of up to 75,000 seat capacity. She worked with many famous names, and generally remembers that time as "blissful", although there were problems, like working harder than everyone else in a PA company and being payed $2.50 an hour whilst a roadie would earn $8.00. "I went completely apeshit when I found that out."


She tells the story tongue-in-cheek, with a good sense of humour, as did all the women I talked to about their experiences, good or bad. It doesn't make their bad experiences any less harrowing though, especially the tale with which Robin Hilton continues her story. In 1983 she moved to England, and was asked by the Thompson Twins to become their sound engineer. What happened was shocking, and meant the end of her career in live recording. "Before the tour started the tour crew said to me: 'this is nothing personal about you, but you might want to leave now, because we don't want you on this tour, and we're going to make you miserable until you go'."

The crew turned on Hilton like sharks: "They just massacred me. It started out with things being patched up backwards. At one point I had only eight channels working on a 40-channel desk. I was determined to be professional and keep working, but one day they rumbled me, threw me around the tour bus quite aggressively. I fell and hurt my back so badly that the next day I couldn't move."

A few days after the incident someone tried to punch her. She ducked, but that was the point at which she finally decided to pack her bags and leave. "I went back home and never did a tour again."


Hilton's experience is unnerving, and one wonders how many women have been subjected to similar treatment and left in despair. On the other hand, almost surprisingly, there are also women who've experienced virtually no problems. Arabella Rodriguez is one of them. She started five years ago as a tape op at Brittania Row, at the noble age of 30 — another idiosyncracy, as tape ops are generally not supposed to be older than 20. Two years ago she went freelance, and went on to engineer for the likes of Soul II Soul, Working Week and Caron Wheeler.

"I was lucky and was really well treated," she says. "Personally I chose to ignore the whole issue and found that it never became a real problem. Although there have been occasions where I have been wound up about something, like if I asked a technical question, or made a technical remark, people became selectively deaf. I could see them thinking: 'nay, she couldn't have said that, it wasn't her...' That used to annoy me quite a lot. But I found that it had much more to do with the element of surprise in encountering a female engineer. It didn't really go beyond that, because there's such a feeling now that women should be able to do what men do, whether it's being a lorry driver or a coal miner or a sound engineer."

Rodriguez also reports positive effects from a female presence in the studio; some lead singers have said that they felt comforted and inspired by hearing her voice over the talk-back, and men become eager to talk about very different things than the run-of-the-mill studio conversation. "When I mention that I'm married and have two children, all these grown men suddenly want to talk about kids all the time, and when they don't have them themselves they'll talk about their nephews and nieces."


Raine Shine: "You have to be as good as a bloke, and better."

Another engineer who works mainly in dance music is Raine Shine. She was one of the very first women to work in the industry when she started in the late 70s. She cut her teeth working with Vangelis for a number of years in the early '80s, and then went freelance. Her real break came three years ago when she engineered for Coldcut. Since then she's worked with The Chimes, Neneh Cherry, Yazz and Soul II Soul. So why this bias towards dance music?

"Partly because you make a name for yourself in a certain style, and that's what you keep being asked for. But also because sexism isn't prevalent in the dance music scene. I've tried to get into rock music and that's very different. You really start to notice it there. Rock bands are often too sexist to accept a girl into the room. I know there are jobs I didn't get purely because I'm a woman."

"You have to be really tough," Shine concludes. "You have to be as good as a bloke and better. I know I can get a good sound, but to convince someone else of that is another thing. You have to constantly prove yourself."

This is an experience which is common to all the women in this article, including producer/writer Annie Hogan. She's not an independent producer, but an artist who writes, arranges and produces her own music. Hogan was keyboard player with Marc Almond for 11 years and co-produced several of his albums with Billy McGee and Almond himself. She currently has a deal with 10 Records as one half of Cactus Rain, together with singer Frances Adie.

Hogan: "As a woman in the studio you end up trying to compensate, working twice as hard. You're almost expected to prove yourself all the time, especially technically. There's definitely an attitude, where some engineers and producers tend to feel elbowed out. I often hear, 'don't touch that, don't touch that,' and you know this is not happening with male band members. Sometimes you think that you're paranoid, but you're not. You find yourself continuously in a position where you have to assert yourself. Which is ridiculous in an artistic environment."


It's this kind of pressure which particularly concerns Sadia, because it's part of her job as a producer to stimulate people creatively. She has been a British resident for four years and is the only female council member of the British Producer's Guild, but her roots are in Canada where she enjoys success as the producer of Canadian artist David Wilcox. Apart from being a producer she's also a songwriter and artist.

Sadia's has experienced many incidents where she was 'tested', and had to prove herself. "It has happened that session musicians who I hired called the record company to check my credentials. Or a bass player on one of the sessions once handed me a pile of documents and said: 'here, fax these for me.' He did that in the middle of the control room, with a lot of people standing around, knowing that I was the producer. The room stopped, cold. Just waiting to see what my response would be. I said: 'Susan is working out on the desk, and I'm sure that she'll be happy to help you with it,' and that was that. It was a test, just prodding, finding out how far they can go, finding out how sure you are of yourself."

She explains that in her view some of the 'tests' she receives have to do with her specific role as a female producer. "If a woman goes into the studio as a producer, the onus is on her to establish her position. You have to create a space for yourself where men wouldn't have to do that. They would walk into the control room and automatically be accepted. With a woman it's not like that. You'll be tested first, and if you pass, you'll be accepted as one of the boys. Apart from that the whole question of authority is more difficult for a woman anyway. If you come across too strong, you're a virago, if you come across too weak, you're ineffectual. It's a very treacherous line to walk."

Anne Dudley: "The classical world is not the same as the rock world, which is often rife with posing teenagers."

The only other British-based woman who works as an independent producer in a rock-related field is keyboard player, arranger, and former Art Of Noise member Anne Dudley. She says she hasn't experienced any of the problems or pressures Sadia describes, but then, the nature of her work is very different: "I don't get problems with authority, because I only work with people who already know me. On top, the productions I take on are almost always orchestral arrangements. I don't have any problems in that area. The classical world is not the same as the rock world, which is often rife with posing teenagers."


With women like Jules Bower working at the Power Station and Karen Hewitt recording all of SAW'S hits, things might be looking up a little bit. Studio managers, when queried about why there are so few women working in studios, have a very variety of responses. They really are the people who could pioneer, or hinder, an increase in the numbers of female engineers and tape-ops.

"But," says Kate Hudson of Mayfair Recording Studios, "women aren't temperamentally suited to the job. I'm no believer in, or supporter of male chauvinism, but the fact is that women can't sit there and be quiet. They can't handle the tensions in the control room either." She cites the case of a tape-op she took on two years ago, who was "a disaster. I thought I'd show some willingness and not discriminate, but she just wasn't up for the job." In contrast, Hudson admits that she has a female engineer working for her now, Avril, with whom she's absolutely over the moon.

Bob Mallett of Battery Studios echoes Kate Hudson, even though he has a female tape-op working for him with whom he's very satisfied: "In general women are not right for the job. They don't have the technical background or aptitude a lot of the time, and they don't have the correct attitude. They don't seem to be happy about working long hours and about the minimal pay. That's why there are more women in broadcasting and theatre. They work in structured shifts, according to union rules, and the pay is better."

Karen Goodman of Metropolis reacts with with a touch of bewilderment when confronted with these kind of statements, because she cannot see any difference, either in attitude or aptitude. "We have a female engineer working here, Heidi Cannavo, and she's fabulous. She's a strong women, who doesn't allow people to take the piss. She gets on great with our clients. Engineering has to do with your ears, so why there's this whole issue is a mystery to me."

Another route by which engineers enter the field is via courses like that at Gateway and the London School of Audio Engineering. Sharon Quinn, who manages the latter, says that on their 50-week course the proportion of women is roughly 5% to 10%, whereas with the 20 week courses it's more like 25%. These figures have been the same for a number of years. Quinn says "it's a shame" that more women don't apply for the courses, but when they do, they do very well. "Women who have studied with us now work in Paris, London and New York." Quinn has heard no reports of outright sexism, but there seems to be a general feeling amongst her female students that "they have to prove themselves much more. They feel they can't make any mistakes, because men tend to see them as competitors."


This feeling of having 'to prove themselves' and of 'having to be better than a man with similar experience', appears to be universal amongst women. But is it enough to explain why women lag so far behind in UK recording studios? Surely, women working in other industries must feel similar pressures?

Many women believe that one of the things that distinguishes the UK recording industry is what one of them called "the public schoolboy attitude" of many studio managements towards their staff. It's exemplified in an open letter by John Hudson of Mayfair Studios, published in the November issue of Studio. He wrote: " be told in front of everyone that the tea is crap either builds the right temperament, or sends tape-ops back to the job centre long before they get a chance to press a button."

It's this 'the army makes a man out of you' mentality, remarked another woman, which is a problem. Their feeling is that working conditions are already "bloody hard" for tape-ops anyway, and that the additional strain of having to prove oneself is often too much for budding female tape-ops.


Another explanation put forward to account for the lack of women in the industry is that the heavy time demands of the job put many off. This would be a mild way of describing what Bob Mallett calls "the wrong attitude".

Raine Shine: "As an engineer you have to breathe, eat and fart music. You're lucky to get away with a 12-hour day. More often than not it's 14 or 16 hours. You have no possibility of a social life, and having a steady relationship is difficult. I've all too often seen the phone calls back home, to what I call the studio widows, saying: 'Sorry darling, but I won't be back till 4 this morning.' Having a decent social life might be more important to women."

And they might be right in that respect too. This will probably fall on deaf ears, but perhaps the recording industry should become subject to scrutiny of the Equal Opportunities Commission, as well as some regulation on pay and working hours. Countless studio managers hold that staff is their main investment, more important than equipment. Perhaps it's time that they put their money where there mouths are.

But it may not be easy to change old attitudes. Sadia: "I think it's tough to come through, and especially tough for women. It takes a great combination of qualities to be able to maintain your sensibilities as a human being and to be able to take things on the chin and stay gentle and human at the same time. Working in the studio can ultimately be very soul-destroying." A change in this soul-destroying atmosphere might be a direct benefit to the recording industry through employing more women. Many believe that an increase in the number of women working in studios would actually benefit music itself.

Sadia again: "Music is in a very bad way these days. I think that a lot of the real sensibilities and emotion and joy of music and making music are frequently dispelled by the incredible weight that's being placed on technology. I think that women would make superb producers and engineers and be well equipped to bring back more human feeling. Men tend to open themselves emotionally more readily to women than to other men. In production situations that could prove invaluable."

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - May 1991

Feature by Paul Tingen

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