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Women account for less than 5 percent of producers and engineers — but maybe not for long

This story has been edited from its published form in order to clarify that Trina Shoemaker is the first, but not only, woman to win a Grammy for engineering.

Women are as visible as ever in music — between them, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have sold over 22 million records since 2008. But look closer at the credits on those albums, and women’s names are few and far between. What about producing and engineering? Who’s guiding the sound and leading the recording process, and doing the work in the studio that takes the sound waves, electrical impulses and digitized bits of sonic information and shapes them into the music we hear? Those roles are almost all filled by men. Beyoncé was a producer on I Am … Sasha Fierce, but she is a rare specimen. By most estimates, women represent less than 5 percent of producers and engineers industry-wide.

“I think that’s generous,” says Terri Winston, founder and executive director of Women’s Audio Mission, a nonprofit program in San Francisco dedicated to training women and girls in audio production. “To be honest, I think it’s a lot less than that.” And historically this has been the case. Jessica Hopper, music adviser to public radio’s This American Life (and Scene contributor), says she wanted to dedicate some space to female producers in her book The Girls’ Guide to Rocking. But beyond a few names — Genya Ravan, who produced Dead Boys’ Young, Loud and Snotty; Susan Rogers, who engineered Purple Rain; and the British electronics pioneer Delia Derbyshire — she found that women amount to little more than a footnote.

“I wound up cutting that [out of] the book,” Hopper says, “because there are so, so few.”

So why the imbalance? There’s certainly sexism, but that alone doesn’t seem to explain the incredibly skewed numbers. Talk to some of the women who have worked as producers and engineers around Nashville, and there is no shortage of theories. But one thing they all know is that they don’t know — they don’t know why, exactly, there are so few women producing and engineering.

Whatever the reasons are, they are numerous and complex. And there’s another thing they all agree on: Eventually things will change.

In addition to being a hit songwriter and performer, Gail Davies became the first female producer in country music, delivering a string of Top 10 hits in the ’70s and ’80s including “Someone Is Looking for Someone Like You,” “Blue Heartache” and “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me).” But when she moved to Nashville in 1976, she wasn’t exactly given a ticker-tape parade.

“People didn’t want to work for a woman,” she says. And by “people” she means “men.” Powerful men.

“A lot of good old boys balked, and they blackballed me,” she says. “I had to go to Muscle Shoals to record my first actual production.” As the legendary bass player Leland Sklar told her, “When you arrived in Nashville, women were still barefoot, pregnant and in the vocal booth.” To this day, it is orders of magnitude more likely that a woman will be singing in a recording session than producing it.

If Davies — who more than proved her abilities to the Music Row suits with those Muscle Shoals recordings — pried the studio door open for women, the Nashville establishment was already busy changing the locks, or at least positioning a doorman outside. “I came in right after Gail,” recalls Wendy Waldman, a veteran producer now living in Los Angeles. “I know she had a tough time.” Waldman says people would often try to dissuade her by saying, “We had a woman. We had Gail.” The unwritten industry quota had been filled — or perhaps exceeded — and any woman wanting to produce records was viewed as a female interloper first, and a record producer second, if at all.

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But those were the ’70s, a different world in many ways. When Davies got a divorce in 1973, she couldn’t get a phone line installed in her house without her ex-husband’s signature. So in the 30-plus years since Davies and Waldman first started cueing tape here, surely the culture of the music industry has progressed, too, right?

Maybe — but maybe not much. After all, men do occupy 95 percent of the production jobs.

Jonell Polansky worked on one of the first 24-bit digital recording sessions in the world at Ocean Way studio on Music Row. But when she came to Nashville looking for work as a producer in 1994, with a degree in electrical engineering and years of Bay Area recording experience in her pocket, she heard an updated version of a familiar story: You’re a woman, and we already had one of those.

“People told me, ‘There was a girl here trying to do that,’ ” Polansky says. “I never sensed anyone discouraging me, but they brought [Waldman] up, and said, ‘Yeah, we really thought she was going to do it.’ ” Never mind that Waldman had done it — producing for every major label in Nashville, including albums by Suzy Bogguss, Forrester Sisters and New Grass Revival, and winning awards in the process. Polansky was basically viewed as new skin for the old ceremony.

“Things haven’t changed that much,” Waldman offers, while also professing a love of Nashville and an itch to produce here again soon. “There’s a handful of women working. Those numbers are way too low. … I have women come to me and say, ‘You’re a pioneer.’ Well, are you producing? Then I’m not a pioneer. I’m a token.”

KK Profitt, owner and chief engineer at JamSync, a small studio on Music Row, shares Waldman’s view that the pace of change has been glacial. And for her, the cause couldn’t be clearer.

“The reason women aren’t more prominent in Nashville is because the men don’t want them to be,” she says flatly. “And the women haven’t had enough moxie — balls — to stand up to them and tell them to take a flying leap.”

Profitt says that when she moved back to Nashville from Boston, “I saw quite quickly that men are the football players and women are the cheerleaders.” And there’s a price to be paid for not shaking your pom-pons with a smile. At a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society, Profitt says she listened to a presentation by a man she describes as a “very prominent engineer,” discussing how to turn over your session tracks to another engineer or producer.

“I said there should really be a mandate to translate to the newest format every few years,” Profitt recalls — a valid point, considering how fast recording and computer technology are advancing, and the risk that valuable recordings could be lost or inaccessible if they’re trapped in obsolete media. Naturally he considered the point, correct? Not exactly.

“He told me to shut up,” Profitt says.

Profitt says she stopped going to meetings, and finds sexism rampant in the industry. “I call it the invisible burka,” she says. “As long as you can be insulted to your face — and nobody thinks anything of it — in large groups of male engineers, you’re not going anywhere.”

Being shouted down and disrespected in a professional society meeting is one thing. An unpleasant encounter here and there does not a vast sexist conspiracy make. But the scarcity of women producers and engineers raises the question: Is there systematic bias? And as a result, at the more pragmatic level of earning a paycheck, do women get passed over just because of their gender?

Again, there’s no clear answer, but the anecdotal evidence suggests bias is a factor. After all, women still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to U.S. Census figures.

“I was producing hit records when Tony Brown was still playing piano for the Oak Ridge Boys, you know?” Davies says. “And James Stroud had a little tiny publishing company … and he’d be giving me songs [he wanted me to cut]. I watched both of them just go right past me and become heads of major record labels, while I was still being treated by Jimmy Bowen at Capitol like an intern — after I’d already produced 18 hit records.”

It’s not clear — and Davies certainly wouldn’t say it’s clear — that men doing similar or even lesser work were promoted over her simply because they were men and she was not. Profitt is more blunt. “Why aren’t there more women producers? It’s because of the mindset,” she says. “If you have the mindset that somebody will never be that, you’re not going to consider them for a gig — if their only function is to be a comfort lady [laughs].”

Any woman working as a producer or engineer will tell you it’s a hard field for anyone, male or female. And in such a fiercely competitive profession — with all the intangibles of taste, talent and star power in the mix — it can be exceedingly difficult to isolate when gender bias is really to blame. Still, if the established powers are men, and those men don’t consider women to be their peers, not much is going to change their minds.

Trina Shoemaker, who is the first woman to win a Grammy for engineering — for Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions — says she just doesn’t have time to wonder whether or why some of her male counterparts have done better than she has financially.

“You know, I didn’t make a million dollars in this business,” she says. “I worked on records that made a million dollars, and some people would say, ‘There it is right there — why didn’t you make a million dollars, too?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know — just didn’t.’ “

She’s quick to point out, though, that plenty of her male counterparts would be glad to make the living she does producing and recording music. In her formative years, she admits, it was tough, but she used the novelty of her gender to her advantage when she could, and let the rest roll off her back.

“I guess there was tons of sexism, but … I was like, ‘Eh, that’s nice you wanted to grab my ass, and you just did grab my ass, but once you leave, I’m puttin’ up the two-track tape, and I’m going to dump Rolling Stones songs to it, and I’m going to edit them. … I’m going to teach myself to edit tonight, after you grabbed my ass. I don’t care — you’re stupid and ugly and fat. Too bad for you.”

If she really has been passed over for work because of her gender, Shoemaker says, “Maybe it is true, but if I’m going to look at it that way, I’m going to be bitter, and quit. And I’m not going to do that. So I just choose to believe that’s not what’s happening, for me, and just [be] fiercely proud that I am one of the women who stepped into something when there were no women that I knew doing it.”

But when you’re a female producer, doing it — even doing it well — can have a way of getting overlooked. Quoting Davidson Nichol and Margaret Croke in The United Nations and Decision-making: The Role of Women (1978), Davies says, “When any scheme succeeds, people tend to look around for a man to congratulate.” And the recording studio has certainly been no exception. Perhaps it’s because women’s careers in music so often have been controlled from offstage by male Svengali figures, or more generally because it was hardwired into our culture for centuries that women were unable — or at least unlikely — to lead. Regardless, for women producers it’s sometimes hard enough just getting people to acknowledge their work as their own.

For a time, Davies employed Denny Purcell, a mastering engineer, as her production assistant — to “make phone calls and run errands and stuff,” she says. And yet, as Davies recalls, “People were offering him cash under the table, publishers were offering him new television sets to get their songs on my albums.” As a result, Purcell had to constantly deflect praise back toward his boss, where it belonged. “He was supposedly the man behind the curtain, you know? Finally, Denny told them one day, ‘Look, you guys … if I could produce albums as well as Gail does, I would stop being a mastering engineer and I would become a producer.’ “

Lari White, who co-produced Toby Keith’s White Trash With Money, among many other albums, recalls when she had just finished producing her own R&B record, Green Eyed Soul. It was her first completely solo production — from top to bottom, from choosing songs to hiring players and overseeing recording sessions. She and her husband, Chuck Cannon, also a songwriter and musician, brought it to “a friend who’s a very successful producer,” not to pitch or promote it, but just to let him hear.

“As soon as he finished listening to it,” she says, “he turned to my husband and said, ‘Yeah, man, that sounds great!’ ” White laughs when she recounts the story, but she also acknowledges, “That kind of stuff can kind of wear on you after a while. I totally get the desire to get … angry [laughs], but it’s pointless.”

Even when people know a woman has produced a recording, they’re not always ready to believe it. “I produced some fantastic demos on an artist for Warner Bros.,” Waldman remembers. “I mean, killer demos. And I knew it. I was on my game with this stuff.” Even so, she didn’t get the job, and soon moved on to the next project.

“Fast forward a couple years later,” she says. “A dear friend, a very confident producer, said, ‘I heard some amazing sides.’ And I said, ‘I did those sides.’ And he said, ‘No way. You couldn’t have done it.’ ” So Waldman recounted some very specific details of the recordings, which only someone who had worked on the project could have known. “His mouth dropped,” she says with a laugh. “He apologized. He [thought] I couldn’t have done it because I’m a chick.”

Even so, Waldman doesn’t think it was conscious. “I wasn’t angry,” she says. “He didn’t hear himself say [I] couldn’t be that good because [I’m] a woman.”

Not getting proper credit or recognition for top-notch productions carries a sting, but sometimes women find it challenging enough just getting properly recognized as a working audio professional at all — and being treated like one.

Profitt tells the story of a live sound gig where she was hired as a guest engineer. Her job was to reset the mixing board after each act, and get it ready for the next. When the band had finished their set, she says, “I went to reset the board, and this guy came over to me and smacked my hand and said, ‘Don’t touch the board! Don’t touch the board!’ I said, ‘I’m a guest engineer.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. Didn’t even apologize.”

Sometimes, it’s not a physical slap that stings — it’s being invisible. Heather Sturm works as an instructor at the Art Institute of Tennessee, Nashville. She says that when working at a studio, she’ll often greet a musician arriving for a session, and offer to help load in equipment.

“And he’ll say, ‘That’s very nice of you,’ ” Sturm says. ” ‘Usually the secretary doesn’t help with that.’ “

The way Polansky frames her experiences will sound familiar to many women who’ve chosen to pursue careers in fields traditionally dominated by men. “People say all the time, ‘Well, do you feel like you have to do better because you’re a woman?’ ” she says. “I have to say, ‘Heck, yeah.’ “

As Lari White puts it, “If who you are and what you are is a point or subject of someone’s prejudice, you have no option but to function in that context. You’re dealing with it, no matter what.” And often that means facing expectations based in nothing but gender myth. “You walk into that room,” Waldman says, “and they’re waiting for you to throw a fit, or cry, or not know what you’re doing.”

So even when they have serious studio chops, women can still find themselves having to overcome the perception that maybe they’re just winging it. For instance, Davies recalls working on a session with the bass player Willy Weeks where the drummer fell ill, and she had to bring in a new drummer at the last minute. It didn’t go well, and afterward she apologized to Weeks: “I said, ‘Sorry about the drummer. I realize it was a little stiff.’ He said, ‘You could tell? You could feel that?’ I said, ‘Of course I could.’ And he goes, ‘Dog, woman! You really know what you’re doing!’ “

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Lady Gaga performing LoveGame at Nashville, United States in the Monster Ball tour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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And more than anything — more than how a song should feel, more than how the chorus needs to pop, more than how the bass line should lock in with the drums — that sense of competence can be the most difficult thing to get across. “I think the hardest part of what I do is creating the perception that I can really do the job,” Polansky says. “I think that it’s just so unlikely, that in the back of people’s minds, it’s like, ‘Wow, I hope she can really do this.’ And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it’s just a reality.”

But it definitely can be a bad thing.

“Nothing kills musicality quicker than feeling like nobody’s at the helm,” White says. With so much talent assembled in one place — not to mention the money involved, in the case of major-label work — everyone has to know that someone’s got the wheel. And everyone’s heard the jokes about women drivers.

For some men, having a woman at the helm is basically the same as having no one at the helm. But even if others aren’t purposely or overtly prejudiced — and Polansky, for one, is quick to say she’s never felt consciously discriminated against — women can end up internalizing the sense that they’re always up against men’s perceptions of them.

“It’s very hard not to create your own filters in your own head of, ‘I have something to overcome, I have to prove myself twice as much, I have to be twice as good,’ ” White says. “It’s a bit of a tricky psychological tightrope for a woman, with all of our historical baggage, just to find a way to be in charge completely, and without any doubt that at the end of the day the buck stops right here — without … well, just in the right way. In the way that’s honest for you as a woman and as a musician, and all those other things that figure into it.”

Or maybe it’s just that women feel like they’re walking that tightrope, but men don’t. After giving a speech at Berklee College of Music, she asked how many of the women in the audience wanted to be producers or engineers, and a lot of hands went up. “Now I’m going to tell you a secret, y’all,” she told them. “All these boys sitting around you, they don’t know any more than you do. They just fake it better.”

The factor that comes up most often when discussing gender disparities in traditionally male fields, especially anything technical, is socialization. From a young age, girls are taught to defer, to be mild — to be Sasha Nice, not Sasha Fierce.

“I will concede, it’s not the way women are raised,” Waldman says. “We’re raised to be attractive, we’re raised to be sexy, we’re raised to be accommodating. But we’re not raised to know our shit and stand by it.”

The weight of all the “historical baggage” White refers to can start pressing down on girls before they know it. “From the very beginning, you’ve got this setup that little girls’ mommies and daddies are going to rescue them, and little boys have to find inner strength,” Davies says, referring to a study that found parents were more likely to interpret infant boys’ cries as anger and infant girls’ cries as fear. And as girls grow up, they’re faced with a world that often expects different things of them than of boys.

“In modern tales as in ancient legends, man is the privileged hero,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex. It’s true in the mythology of music production as well: Phil Spector, George Martin, Jerry Wexler, Brian Wilson, Clive Davis — all the names that loom large are men’s names. Getting past that sense of inferiority, or otherness — that one is an object to be sized up and broken down, rather than someone who’s going to crank the volume and kick ass — can be immensely challenging.

As the Scene‘s Tracy Moore wrote about the young subjects of the rock-camp documentary Girls Rock!, “Anyone who’s spent five minutes on earth will … find it heartbreaking to watch them struggle to unpack already deeply entrenched body image issues at the tender age of 9 — all just to pick up a guitar.” And if simply picking up an instrument to play can be daunting, it’s like fantasy baseball compared to heading up a production involving professional musicians, working with powerful executives and hunkering down in a room filled with all manner of knobs, faders, patch bays, vacuum tubes, meters, cables, and computer screens with multicolored representations of waveforms scrolling across them. The control room of a recording studio would intimidate most people, especially if they’ve been taught to curtsy and smile, and let the boys do the dirty work.

So when girls who’ve been raised to be polite and demure become women, they can have trouble asserting themselves. Davies says, “A lot of women get in the studio and they’re like, ‘Oh, is that OK? Is that all right? Well, what do you think?’ It’s a constant deference. And you can’t defer. You have to know what the hell you’re doing. And you have to instill faith.”

The first rule of doing anything — especially something as demanding as engineering or producing records — is believing you can. As Waldman says, “Our moms and dads didn’t raise us to be in that kind of aggressive world — to lead; to say, ‘I feel in my gut this is the way it should sound. We need to bump the tempo up.’ “

“I think it does come down to difference in socialization between men and women,” Polansky says. “Women don’t frequently get a chance to be exposed to the same things men are.” And they are often discouraged from pursuing technical fields when they do encounter them. But that’s not to say the rules can’t be broken, or rewritten, or that women should ever view themselves simply as victims of an all-powerful patriarchal system.

“I think it’s women’s fault, too,” Profitt says. “You can blame socialization to a certain point, but my mother and father would not allow me to have an electric guitar. Now I have 17 of them. You can break the mold.”

Underlying any kind of gender bias is a belief that women and men are somehow fundamentally different — not just our genitalia, but the very essence of who we are. And in ways that affect our relative competence at tasks that don’t otherwise have anything to do with our gender, like engineering and producing records. Even if we accept this fraught premise, it still doesn’t add up to a world where men are necessarily better equipped to be producers and engineers.

“I think people have realized there are times when you just want female energy,” Polansky says, “which is very different than masculine energy.” But never mind something as hard to define as energy — research conducted at Indiana University showed that women use both hemispheres of their brain when listening, and men only one. Moreover, “women can hear higher [frequencies] longer than men,” Profitt says, “and my feeling is that’s evolutionarily adaptive.” A woman who could hear her child’s cries better, from farther away, increased the chances of her child’s — and thus her genes’ — survival. Because higher frequencies are more easily absorbed by materials, a greater sensitivity to those frequencies would help in detecting sound through a thick forest. Fast-forward a couple hundred thousand years, and that’s someone who can hear that the crash cymbal is sonically out of phase with the hi-hat, or that the violin is just a little flat coming out of the chorus.

The irony is, however, that the demands of motherhood and engineering are extremely hard to juggle. The hours are long. An engineer can expect to work 12-15 hours a day — and longer than that as an assistant. There are no weekends. “So if you did decide to have a baby in your 20s or 30s when you’re honing your field,” Shoemaker says, “you’re out.”

For many women, that crossroads is a decisive one. “Women do drop out of the industry more often than men,” Winston says. Shoemaker waited until she was 39 to have her first and only child, and says that even though she was fortunate to have her career in place, she still had to sacrifice.

“I had to turn down work,” she says. “I can’t go to California. … I can’t haul my toddler off for two months to live in a hotel. And I wanted to be with him.”

Davies was also an established talent when she gave birth (to Chris Scruggs, now an established talent of his own). “When my son was born, I sort of stepped back,” she says. “He was my priority, and I felt that was an obligation that superseded everything else.” Some women grind it out in the studio’s relentless cycle and find success, only to regret missing out on the chance to be mothers.

“You can ask Susan Rogers, and you can ask Leslie Ann Jones, who don’t have children,” Shoemaker says. “And I’ve heard them say, ‘Gee, I wish I had a child.’ ” But women who’ve made it into this rarefied circle know better than to ask for any special dispensation. Nor would they want any.

“Men and women are different. I want them to be different,” Shoemaker says. “I don’t want to be a man.” Being respected like a man, though — and paid like a man — are just fine.

“Numerous engineers I’ve worked with, that have been men, have almost always said, ‘The best assistant engineers I’ve ever had are girls,’ Sturm says. “So most of the feedback I’ve gotten, working with mostly men, is that they’ve enjoyed working with women the most.” Polansky agrees: “A lot of times you hear, ‘I really like working with women because they’re nicer, and they’re more compassionate.’ I hear that a lot. Especially from the musicians: ‘Women are just so much nicer. I might make a mistake, and I’m not going to get yelled at.’ “

But working under the premise that there are real differences between men and women can be a double-edged sword — or more accurately, a double standard. Davies tells the story of a friend who was in the studio with her husband while he was producing.

“He had this big temper tantrum, [this] freaked-out fit,” she says. “He’s somebody who’s really loved and admired in this town. Everybody stepped back and went, ‘Oh, genius at work.’ And afterward, on the ride home, she said, ‘If I had done that, they would say I was the biggest bitch.’ “

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine musicians or engineers tolerating the kinds of punitive browbeating, hot-headedness or weapons-brandishing that have gone hand-in-hand with making legends out of some male producers. In other words: Women producers are fine and good, as long as they’re ladylike. Turbulent, irrational men are forceful geniuses; women acting the same way are crazy cat ladies or pushy broads.

White points out that, again, it’s hard to isolate gender bias when you’re describing outbursts in the studio or a drill sergeant-like approach to musicians. “Now you’re getting down to style,” she says, and not every style works for every producer. But she also admits, “There’s this kind of underlying bottom line that a woman really has to be pleasant to be around, or … it just ain’t gonna fly [laughs].”

On the B-side, so to speak, White also has a practical business reason why it might be a good idea to have more diversity among producers: all the money that’s currently spent on artists who never pan out.

“There’s a pile — I mean, a pile — of music recorded by major labels every day that never sees the light of day,” she says. The label has spent a couple hundred thousand dollars because they know there’s talent there, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t click. “Well, maybe — just sayin’ — maybe one of the reasons that happens too often is that our numbers are so skewed,” she says. “There’s not a broader spectrum of skills.”

If women really do bring a discernably different style (or set of styles) to the table, and less than 5 percent of the producers at the table are women, then labels are hurting their chances of matching artists with a producer who really gets it, and can really let an artist shine. And, of course, sell records — because nothing levels the playing field quite like dollar signs.

“When I bring ‘em the next Taylor Swift or … Brad Paisley,” Polansky says, “when I can bring an act like that to a label, and they can sign ‘em and they become a multimillion-dollar corporation, then women will be OK as producers.” And if men get more chances to produce the next big thing, it’s not necessarily because no one thinks a woman can do it — it’s just as likely because, as White puts it, “One of the few ways you have of [minimizing risk] in the music business is to go with someone that has already produced a hit record.” And in most cases, that’s a man. Of course, that’s changing. “I produced a platinum record,” she says, “so now I’ve got a little bit of traction.”

 

Something else that’s gaining traction is the idea of gender equality in the somewhat obscure world of engineering and producing music.

“I’ve seen changes just in seven years,” Winston says, describing the span of time since she founded Women’s Audio Mission. “We had trouble getting into [the Audio Engineering Society conference] the first year, but that said, they’ve been fabulous to us since.” And across the industry, she says, sure, there is sexism; there are bad apples. But “some people want to say, ‘It’s a man’s world,’ but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that’s helpful. … Most of the time, it’s been great. They’re not unhappy to have more women.”

She adds that in online audio forums, when “someone will post some crazy thing,” saying women are too stupid to be engineers, or should just get pregnant and shut up, Winston says, “I never have to get on there. The guys will get on and say, ‘Don’t be like that.’ It’s kind of self-policing.”

“I just want to work with the people who aren’t sexist,” Winston says, “and there seems to be plenty of them.”

Going further back, we wouldn’t have some of the female producers we have today if it weren’t for the opportunities given to them by men who were in a position to teach and guide them.

Henry Lewy, the legendary producer whose discography includes Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young among countless others, was head engineer at A&M when he met Gail Davies, and didn’t owe her, or womankind, a thing. But as Davies remembers, “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a producer?’ And I said, ‘No, what does that entail? And he said, ‘I will show you.’ “

Engineer Doug Hopping could have easily ignored Jonell Polansky, since the men in the recording class he was teaching were already way ahead of her. But he didn’t. When Trina Shoemaker knocked on the door of Hugh Harris’ home studio, tucked away in a pot smoke-filled basement flat in London, and said, “I’d like to learn how to record,” he could have said no. But he didn’t. And Rodney Crowell was under no obligation to show Lari White the ropes. “He handed … Albert Lee, and John Leventhal, and Tim Horn and, I mean — the best musicians in the world — he handed the whole band over to me,” she says. “He recognized something. He said, ‘You know how to talk to these guys; you know what you want.’ “

And just as the first female pioneers needed men in positions above them to help them up, they also needed the support of the players who would work under them. “The musicians will give you more of a fair shake as a woman versus a man than any other group — and that’s to remember,” Davies says. ”The only people that stuck up for me [in the beginning] were Lloyd Green and Buddy Spicher and Reggie Young, so I used them on all my albums.”

“Yeah, people talk, and people talked, but the fact of the matter was I was supported by a tremendous group of studio musicians,” Waldman says. “I was ultimately judged on the quality of my work, and that’s what I wanted.”

“All the musicians I work with, those guys love working with a woman,” Polansky says. “I have the greatest relationship with Nashville session players.” Of course, there’s also the occasional stupefied silence when a group of men open the studio door and see — shock! awkwardness! — a woman sitting behind the console. Polansky recalls one session in particular: “These guys walked in like, ‘Man, this is weird.’ … It’s like getting on a plane and seeing someone in a miniskirt. … At the beginning of the session, it’s just … they’re stunned. And I thought, I’d be stunned, too.”

But Polansky was able to reassure everyone involved just by doing the work — and she knew as soon as the cussing and off-color jokes began that she had won the trust of her charges. (Session work is still almost completely dominated by men, too — perhaps a discussion for another day.)

And now that the first group of women has blazed the trail, White says it’s going to take “women taking an active role in creating opportunities, like Rodney did for me, for younger women — in a very active way.” Like Davies did, when she brought a young engineer to breakfast at her boss’s house and suggested he hire her.

Maybe then stories like this one won’t be so rare: “I did a session where I was the assistant, Trina [Shoemaker] was the engineer, the artist was a female, and the producer was another female,” Sturm says. “And so we all looked at each other like, ‘Holy crap, the only people working on this are women. This is amazing. This should be documented, because this will never happen again.’ “

Socialization may be a shoddy excuse for the lack of women in audio production, but it’s also likely to be a catalyst for a new mindset. As Proffit says, “You’re seeing a lot of girls from mothers like me, who said, ‘Go out there and fight, honey.’ ” And it’s not just mothers who will shape the next generation. Winston says she’s seeing more and more dads bringing their daughters to the Audio Engineering Society conferences — and to the Women’s Audio Mission booth — seeing a possible career path for their girls that they might not have considered open, or appropriate, years ago.

A new generation of girls is growing up with more female role models, from Beyoncé to Kathryn Bigelow, and cultural attitudes are shifting — if slowly. The demographics of education are changing too. “Women are now getting 60 percent of the college degrees,” Profitt says. Many of those degrees include direct training in studio techniques.

Then there are the mutating cells of music production itself. As White sees it, “The music industry, as a whole, is in this very painful, cathartic moment of transformation. It is becoming something else. … Hell, let’s make something happen, because what’s been happening — you know, your high-dollar boys’ club, ain’t saving your butt right now. … I am just into the possibilities, and what I see is you and I are having a conversation about female producers because — why? Because hey, there’s been a little bit of recent activity on the female producers side for the first time in a very long time, and in a healthier way, I think, than maybe ever before. And this is good.”

Moreover, the distribution model is changing. The gatekeepers are finding the walls around their gates have crumbled.

“We now have the Internet, which puts the artist and producer directly in touch with the consumer,” Davies says, and that “is gonna make it a lot easier for a lot of women who in the past would have to go through a record label executive to get something done and now they don’t. … I hope that’s going to make the future better.”

Shoemaker believes we’re about to see the first significant influx of women into professional audio engineering and production, as part of a cycle she sees on the verge of completing its first full turn. She says that when she started out in the ’80s, “Women in technology did not really exist, for the most part,” and that “if the ’80s were the awakening, then the ’90s were the beginning of women kind of jumping into this.”

So why haven’t we seen more women already?

“If you figure any career that is a technology-based career, you’re looking at 10-12 years of hard work,” she says, “starting as a second, making your way to an independent engineer, then getting a name for yourself where you’re someone people hire independently to record or produce music. That’s a 10-15 year commitment, just to get that far.”

So with the first real wave of female engineers paying their dues and putting in the necessary time to develop their craft, we should see more women’s names filling up album credits (and Grammy nominations for engineering) — eventually.

“Furthermore, production is a whole other tier,” Shoemaker says. “I mean, I started as a tracking engineer, and that took me — I’ve been doing this 24 years — that took me 12 years just to get any chops as a tracking engineer, let alone to say, ‘And I’ll be producing your next record.’ I mean, producing is a trade that you learn over decades.”

There’s also another entry point for women: as artists. Davies and White have worked extensively on both sides of the microphone. And as women — Missy Elliot, Beyoncé and Alison Krauss being prominent recent examples — have begun to produce and co-produce more of their own original material over the past two decades, they’ve picked up skills and helped lead the way.

“The numbers are still small, but it’s just part of the progression of women — from Taylor Swift on down — really taking the reins of their careers and musical expression,” Jessica Hopper says. “We tend to forget what a new development that is — within rock, pop, R&B and country — relative to their recorded histories.”

And as the DIY ethos becomes more and more of a necessity in a contracting music industry, there will be more chances for women to prove themselves without waiting around for a man to hand them the keys. In the meantime, there’s a new crop of women who followed Shoemaker’s path — the path blazed by women like Gail Davies and Wendy Waldman in Nashville and, elsewhere, by women like Susan Rogers and Sylvia Massy.

“There’s a 30-year turnaround [from] the entrance into the field to the commandeering of that field,” Shoemaker says, “and I think that we’re like three-quarters of the way through that. … There’s going to be a lot of women working, hired as professional engineers — because they’re doing their time now, and I know a lot of them.”

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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