We Are In Dire Need of More Women and People of Color in Music Technology

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

What kind of person comes to mind when you think about a music producer or engineer? I’m 99% sure that most of you are visualizing a white male in these roles. Most of the time, these positions are exclusively held by white men, but as with many other industries, these positions are in a strong need of more racial and gender-based diversity. One of the reasons that there is a lack of diversity in music technology is that people of color and women aren’t exposed to it from a young age; they don’t see many people that look like them in music tech. They often f ace sexism, racism, and they aren’t encouraged or taken seriously if they choose to pursue a career in these areas.

Many young girls, who are interested in music, are usually only shown or aware of female vocalists. They are exposed to artists like Rihanna or Katy Perry and think that that is the only avenue for them. I’m sure that if more young girls are shown positive examples of female producers like WondaGurl or TOKiMONSTA or engineers like Leslie Ann Jones or Kesha Lee they would take more of an interest in music technology. In addition to a lack of females in music production and engineering, there is also a striking lack of people of color. While there tends to be more people of Asian decent within these avenues, the fields of music production and engineering in Western countries are still dominated by white males.

If young women and people of color were exposed to Digital Audio Workstations, like Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Cubase, these programs wouldn’t seem so complicated and foreign to them and they would realize how much fun it is to create their own music. lack of exposure, at a young age, to the software and techniques that are so critical in music production and engineering cause many women and minorities to lack interest or confidence when it comes time to start working towards careers in music tech. This ultimately leads to them giving up, because of how far behind their technical abilities are compared to their peers. Moreover, they never recognize that they would like to work in these areas because they were never exposed.

I’m an African-American woman that took an interest in producing music starting in high school. My interest stemmed from my love of songwriting and the desire to have greater control over how I could document my songs. Additionally, I wanted to create more complex compositions by layering my voice and saxophone. I also wanted to be able to use instruments that I didn’t have access to, like drums or bass, in my songs. I didn’t have the financial resources to record in a studio whenever I felt like composing, so I started to research ways that I could record myself at home. This led to researching Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and recording and producing techniques. From there, I found workshops and camps that I could attend to learn about recording, producing, and utilizing production software. In addition to my self-motivated endeavors, I am so grateful to have been encouraged and assisted by my mother in my musical journey. Once I expressed my interest in music production, she helped me look for workshops and camps that would help me learn more about music tech. She also saw my dedication and purchased a Mac and my first DAW (Pro Tools) so that I could work on my recording and production skills from home.

My way of discovering and cultivating my interest in music technology was unique, and one that others may not be able to replicate, due to not receiving support from family, financial restrictions or lack of exposure. Because of the help I have received from so many generous people and the knowledge I have gained throughout the years, I feel that it my responsibility give back to others. I volunteer my time to offer guidance and lessons to young women and people of color who want to learn more about music technology. I believe that in addition to my decision to make my way into a field that doesn’t have a lot of people that look like me and by helping others join me, I am helping to change the current face and future of the music technology world.

The Movement at Berklee’s Music Technology Workshop for Girls

At Berklee College of Music there are a number of technology-based majors from Electronic Production & Design, Music Production & Engineering, Contemporary Writing & Production, and Film Scoring. Take a look at this chart for the gender makeup for each of these majors:

As you can see from the charts, male students overwhelmingly dominate all these majors, while female students only outnumber males in Songwriting and Music Therapy. I think that the current gender makeup of the music technology majors is a perfect microcosm for lack of women in these industries.

These disparities aren’t only represented in the student body. The faculty members in the technology-based major departments are even more imbalanced in both race and gender.

To gain more perspective of what it is like to be a woman and a person of color in music technology, I spoke to two current Berklee students majoring in Music Production & Engineering:

Anne-Florence Pungong: I am black, African, and a woman. This makes me a triple minority. I once had a teacher tell me that I was a literal rarity. The likelihood of someone like me being in MP&E was close to none, which made me incredibly lucky. The MP&E department is definitely very male dominated. This has made me realize the need to be even more proactive than usual, because guys, as the majority, would evidently shine. Overall, I have had a good experience in the MP&E department, except for the occasional times when teachers would mistakenly only refer to “he” as an “engineer and producer” and would have to remind themselves to say “she” later on in order to not completely exclude the very few women in the class.

Camila Acosta: Being woman of color in MP&E has been a bag of mixed emotions, a combination of people underestimating and congratulating me. I definitely think the department has become more diverse; I no longer feel like I’m the only Latinx woman in the room. However, I’ll always remember the time I got asked if I was the singer for the session I was about to engineer, when I was asked for the studio keys, or the time no one let me carry the ‘heavy’ equipment in the speaker building class in which I was the only girl. I think it just feels like I’m unrepresented in the recording & engineering field, so I have to work harder to be seen and to seem knowledgeable enough in order to get others to not ask me if know what I’m talking “about” when they didn’t ask that to the guy in the same class I was in. I do feel lucky that Berklee at least has some of the best female MP&E Faculty members like Susan Rogers and Leanne Ungar (2 of the 25 MP&E Faculty) but we still have a long way to go.

There are more women and people of color involved with music technology now more than ever before, but there is a long way for us to go in order to achieve true diversity. I encourage those of you that have the knowledge and resources, to help educate and inform those that may not have the same privileges as you. I believe that helping minorities and women that are interested in music technology is one of the major steps that will bring more people of diverse backgrounds into working and contributing to these important behind the scenes roles. By creating more diversity through people of varied experiences and cultural backgrounds the music technology world will evolve for the better, innovation will be in abundance, and the music being created will be more representative of the people in our multifaceted world.


About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting www.ayannajacobsel.com.