SF group gets girls into tech through music, sound engineering

By Marissa Lang : sfchronicle – excerpt

Sami Perez of the She’s performs at Dolby Laboratories as part of the concert that Women’s Audio Mission put on with local musicians…

She stood on a stage that was assembled by a team of young women, who set up speakers, rigged up microphones, ran sound checks and connected computers.

In the audience Thursday were members of all-female bands, female sound engineers and officials at Dolby Laboratories. As Terri Winston began to speak, a woman checked the audio levels on an iPad in the front row.

Winston is the executive director of Women’s Audio Mission, a San Francisco nonprofit that uses a recording studio to teach at-risk women and girls how to become audio engineers and sound techs, and provides counseling and job placement for women in the music, radio, film, television and new media industries…

This is the world she lives in. And it is rare. When most of us consume audio media — live at an event or downloaded on our smartphones — it is hardly ever the product of work done exclusively by women.

Just 5 percent of audio engineers are female. Most sound systems — including those using new technology, like virtual- and augmented-reality systems — are created based on the physiology of men…

Women’s Audio Mission wants to change that.

“We’re addressing two issues that we think are linked together: that less than 5 percent of the people shaping and creating all the sounds and messages in our lives are women, and there is a lack of women in (science, technology, engineering and math) fields,” Winston said. “Those two things go together. So when we hear something and think, ‘How does this crazy stuff get on TV, or on the radio?’ The answer is because there are no women at the table.”…

This, Winston said, is one of the most important populations to engage — and one of the hardest.

“The challenge for us is to see because of their lack of access to tech how far behind they are,” she said. “I don’t think people are looking at the amount of underserved girls just in the Bay Area. There’s a whole population of youth that’s being completely left behind.”

About 73 percent of the participants do not have access to a computer or mobile device, the group said.

“The beautiful thing is once we give them access to that technology, they take to it really quickly, and before you know it, they become badasses changing the face of sound in our studio,” Winston said. “But we’re not meeting our demand.”

Winston’s group has a waiting list 300 girls long…

Over the past 13 years, the organization has graduated 7,000 girls. They have gone on to work for many companies, including Pixar, Electronic Arts, Dolby and NPR.

At the concert on Thursday, interns clad in black stood in the full blast of speakers as local all-female bands the She’s and Mariachi Femenil Orgullo Mexicano rocked out before a crowd of about 100 people.

Outside, commuters in business casual jumped as bass and drums pulsed through the glass-walled lobby. Some tried to peer in. Others paused to listen.

They didn’t know it, but they were getting a taste of what female-created audio sounds like. Someday, Winston hopes, it will be less uncommon to hear.

Marissa Lang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mlang@sfchronicle.com(more)

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