The Women’s Audio Mission (San Francisco) was created to cultivate diversity in the recording industry. This nonprofit provides hands-on training to young women and girls in the Bay Area and beyond through school outreach programs, studio classes, internships, job-specific training and placement, and mentoring activities designed to empower participants and provide a stronger path to higher education.

Now in its 15 year, WAM has served 12,000 women and girls and placed 650 women in media jobs, in an industry that is 95 percent male. The organization trains nearly 2,000 people each year in its facilities in San Francisco and Oakland and at Bay Area schools, and is expanding its geographical reach through conferences and events nationwide.

At the helm is founder Terri Winston, an award-winning engineer, producer, and former major label recording artist and director of the Sound Recording Arts Degree Program at City College of San Francisco. I sat down with Winston to learn about WAM’s impact on the audio industry and beyond.

Why did you create WAM?

There are two answers. One of them subconsciously was a tribute to my dad, because he provided this lab environment when I was growing up. His lab, as a research engineer, that was my playpen. Later, I figured out how influential that was to me.

There was music and art in there, and all this technology, and it was like, “Oh, this stuff is all related.” I think Women's Audio Mission is re-creating that environment so that women, especially young girls, have access to it and can see the possibilities. I think it’s especially effective when that training and environment comes from women. It creates this really safe space, but also this inspiring space.

Second, I started teaching and I realized how under-represented women were. I realized that “less than 5 percent” statistic. That there are less than 5 percent creating all of these messages in our lives. That's crazy, when you think about it. There are no women at the table making the decisions on the content that we hear in the soundtrack of our lives.

What are the barriers to diversity in the audio industry?

You have to go outside of your circle of friends, you have to go outside your family, go outside your neighborhood, go outside your community, in order to be inclusive. That's not always comfortable for people, and I think people equate comfort with something being good. I don't believe in that. I think that some of the greatest discoveries come from a place of unknowing and discomfort.

I think all kinds of diversity can be addressed the same way. We're providing that environment for someone so that they feel like this is something they can do when they have the right support. We're not coddling them; they go out in the world, and they do it, and they're great.

That perspective shifts some of the focus off the notion of women or girls not seeking beyond what they know, and takes everyone into consideration. Which is different from just saying, “Women need to work harder. Women need to be braver.”

Sometimes that is true. But it’s also like, what's the environment that's creating that situation? If you’re constantly sending that messaging to these kids, to girls, that they aren’t commonly seen in a certain career, that's damaging. They’re not going to see themselves in these roles. They're not going to see themselves as the hero of the story, necessarily, because it's pretty rare that a girl is the hero. This whole idea of them being brave and courageous—it’s very gendered.

Ninety-six percent of the girls you reach are low income. Why is it important to prioritize underserved communities?

This is a population where 73 percent don't have access to a computer or a mobile device. Seventy-eight percent have never touched a musical instrument. It's heartbreaking. We just decided that until we met all that demand, that's what we would focus on. It's actually more cost-effective to do this than to wait till that person starts to get into trouble. We should be making that investment. The education system is just failing a huge part of the population.

Google, Dolby, Adobe, Cisco, and other companies have funded WAM projects. Why is the private sector filling this gap in public education?

It’s resources. It’s not like teachers are failing anyone; employees of the public school system are dancing as fast as they can. But when we start only allowing certain people to have access to education, that’s not okay. That's where the gap comes from. For us, we’ve explored corporate partnerships because we need to diversify where our funding comes from. There’s only so much money that we can get from the government; if you think about it, if the government had extra money, it should be dumping it into the education system.

You’ve placed 650 women in jobs.

It's starting to get significant. The great part is, we’re getting companies that hire one and then they keep doing it. Like Pixar, I think we’re on our fourth hire there. Dolby, I think we have 20. Then Electronic Arts, I think we probably have five or six placed there. Then the next women, when they move on, what’s great is they call and try to get another woman. It’s like they keep filling their seats. That happened organically. I didn't have anything to do with that. They just started saying, “I’m getting a better job and I want somebody from WAM to have my job.”

You’ve been doing this for 15 years. How does the industry look to you now, vs. when you started out?

We see the most change at conferences like AES or NAMM. We have such heavy traffic, and manufacturers are starting to position toward our booth because they see how many students are streaming to us.

AES has been supporting us heavily by continually donating our booth and helping us reach women there. I think it’s been effective. I think you can go to any booth at AES, especially if you say, “WAM sent you.” They'll say, “Oh, awesome. Say hi to those guys.” They'll give you the whole product demo. That, I think, is change.

That's one way to measure the impact—these conventions and meeting places are such hubs of information.

We've been noticing here, too, in the Bay Area. We started doing these performances, Local Sirens, every quarter. For the past couple of years, we’ve noticed that when local music media do their Top 100 Artists from the Bay area of Top 50 Artists, something like half of the artists are artists that we discovered and presented at our events.

It’s been really heartwarming to me to see how many male allies we have. How many young men are walking around with WAM buttons on and WAM t-shirts on. How manufacturers like Mackie are sending pictures of the guys on the assembly line in WAM shirts. That's people saying, “Hey, we’re with you. We want to help do this.”

Change is slow, and not necessarily tangible. But another way to look at it would be to look at the venues here in San Francisco and to see that almost every single venue has a woman from WAM as a live sound engineer. I was talking to a male musician who said, "Terri, I don't see that it's a problem here. There are so many women." I said, "That's because we are in San Francisco.” That was great, because he saw it as normal. There are a lot of little things like that.

Where do you want to take WAM next?

Last year in Boston, we did the first and only women’s recording conference, which iZotope hosted on its campus. We had 100 young women on the East Coast come and learn to record with Susan Rogers, Leanne Ungar, and a host of other folks.

On June 9th we're holding a conference at Capitol Studios in L.A. We’re capping it at 100 and it sold out in three days. We're just trying to see where's the biggest demand for the next WAM location, because that's the constant question we get: “How do we open this here in our city?”

The natural growth would be to be in other cities. We're looking at holding a conference in New York this year, and we've had a UK government entity come over to try to figure out how to bring our Girls on the Mic program there.

We're not changing; if anything, we're perfecting our curriculum and looking for ways to bring it to more people all over the world.