Women’s Audio Mission Amplifies Female Voices with Support from Dolby

A beautiful, diverse chorus of women’s voices sing out in nearly every genre of music, and that’s a great thing. This isn’t the case on the other side of the microphone.

Less than 5 percent of those creating the music people listen to everyday—that’s the songwriters, sound engineers, producers, etc.—are women. This makes a tangible difference in the music that gets made and the sound that we hear.

“There are so many decisions that are made on content,” says Terri Winston. “When you don’t have women at that table, we’re not making sure that the content is appropriate or inclusive of women’s perspectives.”

This inequity is what inspired Winston to found the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), a nonprofit dedicated to connecting women with hands-on education and job opportunities on the technical side of the sound industry. In particular, WAM has a special focus on low-income girls and women in the Oakland, California, area, where access to technology is a barrier that keeps many locked out of STEM careers for their entire lives.

A firm believer in the nonprofit’s mission, Dolby provides support for WAM at several levels, from providing a space for the October 6 fundraiser and concert with Sheila E. to creating job opportunities for WAM participants in some pretty unexpected places.

Women lend a critical ear for Dolby

About four years ago, Dolby launched a critical listening program to bring in trained but unbiased ears—that is, people who work in the audio industry but don’t have a direct hand in developing technology for Dolby—to conduct tests and participate in experiments that evaluate Dolby’s new developments.

There was one snag: Dolby’s pool of “critical listeners,” as is all too common in the audio industry, skewed very male.

“If we want to be doing our best work, then we really need to have a gender-balanced demographic for the experiments,” says Dolby Senior Subjective Test Engineer Rich Graff.

Enter the Women’s Audio Mission. The organization became a consistent resource for Graff and his team to draw on female talent and provide a diverse range of ears that makes Dolby’s work better. And more than that, it’s a competitive advantage for Dolby. Graff says audio companies that don’t make an effort to recruit women for product testing are working with slanted data to their products’ detriment.

This is important because of a physiological ratio called the head-related transfer function, or HRTF. One’s HRTF is a function of several physical features—head size, ear shape, torso size—that influence how one processes sound from a point in space. Graff says that HRTF values between men and women differ, and not accounting for that variance is a product problem that Dolby is better equipped to solve.

This is not unlike Winston’s point. When women don’t have a seat at the table, the decisions that get made miss the perspectives of half of all listeners.

The WAM Amplifier fundraiser at Dolby Cinema on Market St., on October 6, is part of the last leg of a $2.1 million capital campaign to permanently secure WAM’s facility in San Francisco. In addition to providing a state-of-the-art venue, Dolby helped connect WAM with the event’s headliner, Sheila E., and set a model for corporate partners: one that prizes giving as much as it offers opportunity and support.

“If you take especially a very underserved population, low-income girls of color, and you empower them to use technology to amplify their voices,” says Winston, “it’s going to entirely revolutionize what you hear everyday.”