At Sunday night’s Grammys, four women will compete for the technical award Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. They comprise just 9.3 percent of the category’s 43 nominations.
The numbers are so grave that Michelle Mancini, nominated for work on electro-funk duo Chromeo’s album Head Over Heels, was initially pleased to be nominated among other female engineers, even if just three. “Every time I see a woman nominated in anything really for a Grammy, I’m impressed,” she said. But upon learning of the 9.3 percent percentage, Mancini rescinded her approval. “I’m no longer impressed. That sounds terrible.”
Music engineers play an important role in production, mixing and finalizing music before distribution; however, only 3 percent of the industry’s engineers are women. The sobering data, released by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, kickstarted a controversial 2018 Grammy season where Lorde—the sole female nominee up for Album of the Year—wasn’t offered a solo performance. Recording Academy President Neil Portnow responded to the scarcity of female nominees that year by telling Variety, “Women need to step up.” After the ensuing backlash, the Recording Academy created a diversity task force.
Now the Task Force on Inclusion and Diversity is launching its first industry-wide initiative: Women in the Mix. Nicki Minaj, Diplo, Cardi B, Ariana Grande, and Justin Bieber are among over 400 artists, producers, studios, managers and other industry influencers pledging to consider at least two female candidates when hiring their next engineers and producers.
“Producers and engineers have a lot of say about what happens in the studio. When a woman engineer is there, it’s going to be a safer place—a more inclusive place because she’s in charge,” said Tina Tchen, the task force’s lead and co-founder of TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.
Tchen, a former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, said the organization hasn’t decided whether to hold pledgers accountable. So far they’ve listed the names of committed industry folk on their website and partnered with music nonprofits She Is the Music and Women’s Audio Mission to connect and promote female artists.
“My only fear about the initiative is telling people who they have to hire is not really something that I can get behind,” engineer Emily Lazar, nominated this year for Beck’s Colors, said.
Indeed, Women in the Mix will not mandate hiring, instead prioritizing artistic excellence over filling quotas. “We wanted to make sure you’re taking a look. The research tells us if you make sure people are looking when they start to hire, that inevitably is going to lead to more women being hired,” said Tchen of their version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule.
A leading engineer for over 20 years, Lazar has battled sexism and broken numerous glass ceilings. She was the first female mastering engineer nominated for Album of the Year in 2011 for Foo Fighters' Wasting Light. If she, Mancini or fellow nominee Kim Rosen (nominated for The Milk Carton Kids’ All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do) walk home with the Grammy, they’d be the first female mastering engineer to win Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
Having fielded more questions about her gender than her skill set by reporters and colleagues, Lazar quickly committed to the Women in the Mix initiative, but she’s done justifying why women need to be represented. “Why is it so important for women to be in there? Well, why wouldn’t women be in there?” she said.
In addition to being a member of She Is the Music, an organization focused on driving inclusivity in the music industry, Lazar sits on the Recording Academy’s Board of Governors and partnered with Spotify on their EQL global database of women in audio and music production. “It’s been thrust upon me, and I happily take the burden,” she said of her advocacy. “It would have been great if it were there for me. It was pretty lonely and pretty scary.”
The Lodge, her mastering studio, has been a favorite among many high-profile musical acts, including David Bowie, Maggie Rogers, Madonna and Vampire Weekend. She came up in the industry heralded for her early adoption of digital technology, but also witnessed harassment and belittlement along the way. Though the #MeToo movement has swept across the film industry, music has not been as affected. “I know personally just from my own stories we have not uncovered the half of what goes on in the studio,” Lazar said.
It’s one of the reasons why both Mancini and Lazar committed to hiring women well before the launch of Women in the Mix. In an August 2018 article on Medium titled “Why I’m Not Hiring Men,” Mancini lambasted the music industry’s treatment of women, encouraging her male colleagues to hire “intelligent, capable women.”
Mancini says she was surprised that no male colleagues criticized the article. Instead, speaking out helped her connect with other advocates for inclusion. Manny Marroquin, a member of the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing Steering Committee, quickly invited her to join their Los Angeles chapter. “It was illuminating to see someone who has such an incredible, long-standing career respond so positively,” Mancini said.
Both Mancini and Lazar are excited about the possibility of Women in the Mix helping the next generation of female musicians like Amber Mark, a singer-songwriter receiving her first Grammy nomination in the engineering category, also for her work on Chromeo’s Head Over Heels.
“I never thought I’d be nominated for an engineering Grammy,” Mark said. But like her nominated counterparts, she’s not resting on her success. “Even though I’m just starting out, I still want to be a part of helping people understand they’re capable of doing things I’ve done.”