More chicks in the mix

The Audio Engineering Society is attempting to mend its membership. In LA in 2014, it organised an all-female panel (with a male moderator) to encourage creative women into music production. What let it down was its title, which I borrowed for this post.

This isn’t intended as good journalism. To deserve such an accolade, I’d have given the AES a right to reply before publishing. I’m a lone writer, though. My most popular blog post to date is about legal compliance with radio emissions regulations. If you do happen to be reading this and you object, please comment appropriately.

The UK section is pushing the UN’s He For She initiative very hard, dedicating much of its newsletter and several of its lectures to the subject of gender equality, and encouraging its members to sign a public pledge. In this month’s newsletter, more space was devoted to gender issues than to anything else. I’ll accept this as necessary: social engineering is a large part of our craft.

About twenty years ago, a friend of mine, an undergraduate engineer, was working on an industrial placement for a manufacturer. One requirement of her job was helping to run a stand at a trade show. Within earshot, a salesman of a more senior generation said to a customer, ‘She’s only here because she’s pretty.’ He also quipped, ‘I thought harass was two words’. A senior designer she’d passed on the stairs at work had once asked, ‘Fancy a shag?’ As the power relationship was skewed ovewhelmingly in their favour, these remarks couldn’t be raised safely. They had to pass without comment (except to me).

While it’s hard to arbitrate he-said-she-said disputes, I see that casual verbal abuse is becoming exceptional: mindsets such as these are rightly being seen as revolting instead of funny. I’m confident that this kind of sexual harassment would be treated seriously anywhere I’ve worked since.

We have a more nuanced understanding of discrimination today. It exists more perniciously in small decisions and ungendered put-downs: the sort of abuse that all human beings face at some point in their lives as they progress in a competitive world. No matter who you are, you harden yourself against cruelty and failure, because unscrupulous people will use any vulnerability as a foothold. Although it’s illegal, some will attempt to weaponise sex, age, race, and social status. Women still have it harder: it’s just more difficult to prove.

The terms of He For She’s pledge are surprisingly hard to see at a glance on their website, but the gist is as follows:

  • When making appointments, insist on seeing candidates with a range of backgrounds and attributes.
  • Abandon the use of sexist language and turns of phrase.
  • Don’t bully or demean women, either to them or to others.
  • Call out sexism when you see it.
  • Spread the word about the initiative.

I’ve not signed it. Laudable as the terms are, the gesture makes me uneasy for three reasons:

  1. Why would I sign a statement that I’ve stopped beating my wife? Following these rules is the minimum standard required for permission to participate in a modern industry. I’ve listened to my peers, I’ve read feminist literature, and I’ve recruited with fairness in mind. Equal rights aren’t a new issue to me: I’ve agonised about my behaviour and my wider accountability for decades and (as I should) questioned equality of opportunity versus outcome in the field of engineering. I haven’t always done well, and I still feel ashamed when I fail, but I promise to make my failures in life ever more subtle and less stupid. And I call bad behaviour, politely but firmly, when I see it. Signing this pledge is like putting the ‘L’ plates back on my car. You never stop learning to drive but, beyond a certain level, you’re not obliged to make a public spectacle of the fact.
  2. Walking around wearing a badge saying ‘I won’t be sexist’ doesn’t stop you being sexist. It just means you like badges. What it might do is embolden you and your peers against unflattering feedback about your conduct, should you receive it. Who knows, it might even make your denial of sexual harassment more plausible at an employment tribunal. Unless it’s a genuine social enterprise, which I don’t think it is, I’m sceptical about the ability of He For She to correct bad behaviour.
  3. There’s evidence that people in some circles are being shamed or no-platformed if they refuse to sign the pledge. To put it bluntly, this isn’t kosher.

I’ve interviewed and recruited women. Good women are as hard to find as good men. They’re just as highly sought: in fact, more so, because they bring fresh perspectives to a very male discipline. My year on the Tonmeister course (1996-2000) comprised sixteen male and two female students. The ratio varies year-by-year, and has occasionally passed 75:25, but has never been close to 50:50. Other technical courses are balanced similarly.

Even with an enlightened selection process, the long-term ratio of graduates, in one of the most artistic of technical disciplines, is about five to one. It’s just hard to attract women to some professions. Those who choose ours set forth their own reasons. Perhaps prejudice drives others away, but you cannot blame every community and every school.

I’ve also been involved with the wonderful ADC conference, which explicitly set out with a goal of inclusivity. Again, it’s not going to approach 50:50 participation in this generation, because that’s not how its audience is composed. Of our four keynote speakers last year, though, three were women working at the highest levels of industry and academia. The fourth was Jules Storer, creator of JUCE: the reason we were there.

With that in mind, here’s a recent tweet from the incoming AES UK chair:

To give Dr Lopez the benefit of the doubt, Twitter is a platform for provocation rather than nuance. But this message goes beyond He For She. It starts to caricature the adversary, treat the problem in monochrome, and urge us to rush to judgement.

Here’s a personal tale. At ADC ’16, I convened a panel about spatial audio. I didn’t have a lot of notice, which is often the way at these things. Spatial audio is my academic speciality. Even for somebody with connections, who has read a couple of hundred papers on the subject and released a modestly successful product, it’s a niche field. We asked three relevant, preeminent female technologists we knew if they were able to attend: two weren’t free to travel for personal and budgetary reasons; the third had already booked into a rival conference. Thinking laterally, we contacted two female executives in relevant companies that would have helped us to take the argument beyond technicalities. When they found time to reply, it turned out that they weren’t available either.

Sometimes, you’re unlucky. It would have been disingenuous to apologise for convening an all-male panel after a deliberate attempt, in good faith, to balance it. Alternatives would have been to dissolve the session, denying delegates an enlivening perspective on an interesting subject, or to have co-opted a less qualified panellist at short notice at the expense of the discussion.

We chose to go ahead with the best panel we could assemble. There was no hostility, and there didn’t need to be: it was a good panel, and we took questions from both men and women. This is why I am troubled by Dr Lopez’s tweet.

Now that personal privilege is a public concern, we should not let hypocrisy undermine small, hard-won victories. As we climb our ladders, it is only by continually engaging our subordinates as equals, and avoiding tyranny, that trust will coexist with power. The choice to respect people we don’t need to respect brings us closer to a fairer, more sustainable workplace. This is the hallmark of what He For She sets out to achieve, and the way to win this argument.

If you’re able to determine who gets to speak in public, it’s easy to ostracise those with whom you disagree. This is fine when the speaker is actually inciteful, but the pledge risks correcting one abuse of power with another, driving poisonous ideas into a place where their proponents cry persecution and recruit more eloquent supporters, while bystanders are caught in the crossfire. The right way to challenge repugnant but prevalent ideas is to tolerate the people who hold them, and beat them in debate until they are on their own.



4 thoughts on “More chicks in the mix”

  1. I’ve also felt uneasy with the AES UK section’s current obsession with the HeForShe campaign. Your first two reasons highlight the ineffectiveness of such a campaign, but the third reason is the most concerning. The section is compiling a list of people who have signed the pledge and very publicly displaying it on their Facebook page. Whilst the intention is undoubtably good, the keeping of such a list implies that those who have not signed it are not on their side, which is divisive and detracts from the real issues.

    1. I left Facebook a couple of years ago, but have just been made aware of the email posted on the UK Section’s feed on the 2nd July last year. I hope that I don’t need to say that my views on the subject differ from the correspondent’s.

      If women are being victimised, then we need to hold the higher ground to insure that they can be involved in furthering the arts of audio and acoustics. That’s what our society is for.

      I don’t remember being consulted about whether I wanted my society to become a political pressure group. It’s a question of balance, and this feels like a hijack.

  2. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for this. I’m grateful for the recent AES UK focus on diversity in audio because it reminds me that there is work to do (and that I can probably influence the situation on some level). I joined the IoSR as a lecturer this year and straightaway noticed how few women there are studying with us. I have to say though that “It’s just hard to attract women to some professions.” sounds a bit defeatist. I’m hoping that the forthcoming AES UK panel will give us some more creative ideas for how to reach and fairly recruit a more diverse pool of Tonmeisters.

  3. Hello Philip. I hope it doesn’t sound defeatist! The imbalance in tech is wider than our industry, and I question our ability to create, unilaterally, a space where women can flourish when the things that stop them participating happen 5-10 years earlier in their lives than we reach.

    Some parts of the profession may still be rampant with sexism. I hope, and I think, that we’re cauterising it. It’s not a given, though, that we can achieve parity without setting quotas, and where the divide ought to be. How much a girl’s choice to take a technical path is hindered by peer pressure, by parental influence, or by biology is beyond my area, which is why I’ve stayed away from it.

    Creating a more inclusive environment in the profession
    is great; I’m all for it. Dealing with dissent by shaming rather than patiently disabusing members is not — by definition — inclusive.

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