Women Roar Onstage But Barely Exist In The Sound Booth

By Lindsey Havens
Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO

There is no denying that more women are conquering the pop charts in the form of big names like Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. In the artistic realm males and females seem to be on equal footing.

But there is still a significant gender imbalance in vital roles that go unseen, from executives to sound engineers who are lucky to appear in a liner note. Mary Gaffney is one of the latter.

Gaffney is part of an unintentionally exclusive group, the 5 percent, a minority of sound engineers who are women.

But before Gaffney, 64, could blaze a trail, she had to learn the craft. In the absence of any formal schooling on how to become a recording engineer, she said, people were willing to teach her, and at the time, that pool of people consisted solely of men. She was inspired by Hank Neuberger, former head engineer at Chicago Recording Co.

“When everyone was saying, ‘No, women don’t do this,’ Hank said, ‘Give it a try,'” she said.

A softball game in the early ’70s got the ball rolling. Gaffney was playing on a team made up of local musicians along with Rich Warren, an engineer for Chicago folk and classical station WFMT. Gaffney was studying radio broadcasting at the time and Warren wanted to get off the night shift. It was a perfect opportunity that Gaffney, discouraged by her school advisers, turned down. But a few months later when she was offered the job again, there was no hesitation.

Gaffney became a piece of “a very small framework of women creating entree for themselves,” said Steve Albini, longtime recording engineer and owner of Electrical Audio in Chicago. He said there has always been a general undercurrent of sexism in all traditionally male-dominated industries, especially technical occupations. An unfortunate result of this is lost talent.

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