Women are gaining ground in every profession, yet women still hold relatively small percentages of jobs in certain fields and earn less on average than their male counterparts. Despite these challenges, career success in a male-dominated field is possible, as many women are proving. DreamWorks sound engineer Lenise Bent offered insight into her success and offered advice for women considering a career in a male-dominated field.
Why did you choose a career in sound engineering? How has the field of sound engineering changed since your career began?
I started out studying film and television yet my passion has always been music. I come from a musical family and was in a youth orchestra when I was 8 playing flute and studying piano. When I was 18 my boyfriend was in a band and the guitar player was also engineering for producer/songwriter/star Leon Russell who had a forty track studio in his home, quite unusual at the time. I was a huge fan so when I was asked to stop by I jumped at the chance. When I saw the control room and heard the amazing music coming out of the monitors I had my “Aha!” moment, goose bumps and all. I knew right then that this is what I was supposed to do with my life so I dropped out of college, found a recording school and signed up.
When I started out, everything was analogue and tape. Artists performed well or were expected to do it again. There were enormous budgets and record companies ruled. If you wanted to record professionally you pretty much had to book a studio to do it as all the equipment was very expensive and large. No ProTools or Autotune. Now digital technology is so relatively inexpensive and available that anyone can afford to record in their home or wherever. The same basic recording techniques still need to be in place and understood to make a professional sounding recording. That hasn’t changed. It is also still a male dominated field though there are a few more women engineering than when I started.
In your opinion, what keeps women from entering certain professions, specifically technology and engineering?
If anyone, male or female, is passionate about a certain field they will do whatever it takes to make that their career. That said, often women would like to have more to their life than a career, like a marriage and a family and be able to spend quality time with their children. I think women may be more considerate of this when choosing a career path than men. In my particular field it is quite challenging to have a relationship and family. The hours are long and unpredictable and the job must be the first priority in ones life if one expects to succeed.
I totally understand why some careers may seem unappealing to women, including and especially mine. Also, I think generally men define themselves more by their career than women. Work is important but there are other things just as much or more important. However, as I said before, if a person is driven by their passion for a specific field they will make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. It gets down to what is one’s priority in life, one’s personal choice.
Although more women are entering engineering and other male-dominated fields, they still earn less on average and hold lower-ranking positions. Do think this will change?
I suppose this might still be the case in the corporate world but in my industry talent, skill and knowledge dictate one’s earning ability, not ones’ gender. I personally have never experienced this sort of financial discrimination. In the fields where this still occurs I expect this will change in time. Younger men are more used to women working along side of them as equals in the workplace unlike some older executives and they will eventually retire or die off and be replaced.
What obstacles have you encountered over the course of your career? How have you overcome those obstacles?
I had the good fortune of having three brothers and they had lots of friends so being around guys was always part of my life and no doubt prepared me for working in a man’s world. I always knew, however, that on the first day of a recording project I not only had to prove that I knew what I was doing but that I had to overcome the client’s concern that I might not be as good as a guy would have been. Actually, I knew I had to be better than a guy because any mistake could have been construed to be because I was a girl. At first I dressed asexually and wore my glasses so the client and studio would know I was serious about becoming an engineer/producer. Also, at the time there was this idea that some women had other reasons for being in the studio besides being a good assistant engineer, one requiring kneepads if you catch my drift. I got approached a few times and always turned them down so for a short time I was given the nick name “The Dyke” because I wouldn’t have sex with them. AND I had a boyfriend! Go figure. It was the egotistical knuckleheads who couldn’t believe that anyone could resist them that would typically hassle me. I noticed the better the musicians were, the less my gender mattered and the more respectfully I was treated. I made it a point not to pull the girl card for any reason and always felt that I could do anything in the studio as well or better than any guy. Being female could never be an issue. What was more important was that I made myself an asset to the project by anticipating what was needed, taking the initiative and being fun to be around. Once I established my reputation I was good to go. My challenges have been about competing for projects so the best way for me to overcome this was to be the best person for the job.
What advice can you offer women considering a career in a male-dominated industry?
My first thought is to mentally drop the male/female thing. No one ever bought one of my records because a female recorded it. I’m not a successful woman engineer, I’m a successful engineer who is also a woman…big difference. Be absolutely GREAT at what you do and let the “powers that be” know by your actions that you are sincere. Be totally professional, i.e. on time or early, good hygiene, work well with others and NEVER get intimately involved with anyone you’re working with. Know your own worth. Your colleagues and superiors will treat you with the respect you give yourself and prove that you deserve. Be honest, trustworthy and confident. Keep your “eye on the prize”, whatever that thing is that you want to achieve, and go for it.
Lenise Bent is a Dreamworks Sound Engineer and instructor at SAE Institute in Los Angeles who has worked on blockbuster films including Shrek, and whose early experience as Chief Engineer with producer Mike Chapman is the driving force behind Blondie’s Platinum selling album “AutoAmerica”.
About SAE Institute
Founded in Sydney Australia, 1976, SAE Institute has campuses in 54 cities across the globe and is a leading international provider of audio engineering, animation, multimedia and film production courses. By providing hands on tuition along with access to the very latest state-of-the-art equipment in a practical, real world setting, SAE ensures students’ knowledge and skill levels are relevant to industry expectations. SAE currently has schools in New York City, Nashville, San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles with plans to expand to several other US cities near term. Please visit www.sae-usa.com for more information on USA campuses.