I Didn’t Ask for YOUR Opinion

Shayna Brown, owner of Chez Boom, discusses what it’s like being a woman in the male dominated world of sound. She finds it a great joy to have her fingers in the huge pie of work that goes into many of our favourite TV shows and movies. Brown has been part of sound teams that have won an Academy Award for Best Sound, and numerous sound teams of Emmy-winning TV shows and worked on the likes of Dr Strange: Multiverse of Madness, Better Call Saul, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Gravity, Divergent and many more.


“I’ve had iconic stars walk into my studio over the years, from Al Pacino to Matthew McConaughey to Jessica Alba, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Reynolds, Kirsten Dunst, and the list goes on. These folks, and the majority of the actors I get to work with, are professional and lovely.” 


“I’ve worked in the TV/film industry for more than 25+ years. I’ve recorded incredible actors, worked on fantastic movies and TV shows, and in general had quite an amazing and tremendously lucky career. I’ve also had my fair share of utter humiliation, usually at the hand of someone in power."


This industry, like all industries, also has its not-so-lovely people. It has people who dismiss her with a glance, because she is not what they imagine when they hear the job title ‘Audio Engineer.’  “I am a woman and that’s all it takes to ruffle feathers.”


Unfortunately, like many of her female colleagues, Brown has experienced uncomfortable situations that you would think were left in the dark ages. Working in a mans world has meant that at times her gender dictates how she is perceived.


“I have experienced incidences that I would like to share. Not because of the shock and horror of it but to make others stop and think about what they may want to say and to encourage others to speak up in defense when necessary.” 


One very prominent author, who was recording his audiobook at her studio, literally turned his back to her and refused to speak to her. “He kept asking for the engineer, and if he needed to talk to me it was done through his assistant. This lasted half a day before I broke down and had a male employee take over for me.” 


“While working on a film I was answering a question posed by the actor,  “I didn’t ask for YOUR opinion, I was asking the engineer’s opinion,” he said from the booth, mid-session. Fortunately we were connected to a team at a sound stage in LA. The director, monitoring from LA, speaks down the line:  “She is our engineer today. Shay, what do you think of that take? Do we have match?” I was grateful to have support from the team.”


However team support is not always given. Again whilst working on an ADR project she was met with, “Hey baby, sit on my lap so I feel inspired to do my best work” from the actor. Brown was connected to a sound team in LA again, but this comment was met with silence from the other side of the line. “I laughed it off uncomfortably, and made sure my eyes stayed shifted downward for the rest of the session, so as not to encourage more of this kind of talk.”


“I’m not going to start recording until you agree to go on a date with me,” said one actor. Brown half felt the compliment, half felt horrified. This time the rest of the creative team was in person in the studio with her, and as the actor pushed her to accept a dinner date with him, she found herself turning red, fumbling and starting to tremble. “I tried to hide this and tried to laugh it off and get him in the studio, and finally with an “I’ll think about it!” from me, he agreed to start working.  I ran the session from a seat of absolute mortification, and felt the eyes of the clients boring into my head. It seems like such a little thing, but this kind of treatment diminishes my professional capabilities. It’s not flattering, or if it is, that is outweighed by the disrespect it conveys.”  


But, it’s not just actors who behave this way; Brown received a call from a fellow sound engineer. “I’m calling to go over technical specs for a session later today,” said one sound engineer to her on the phone. “Great!” she replied “What are your specs?” “No,” he replied. “I need to talk to the tech guy there,” this man pressed. “We don’t have a tech GUY,” she informed him. “We have me. I’ll be your tech girl.”  Brown says she tried to keep things light; “I tried not to step on his toes. He was very condescending for the rest of the setup, but by the time we did the actual session and he realised I am technically stellar and an incredible audio engineer, he was falling over himself with “thank you” and “wow this went great.” It was small salve to my hurt confidence from the beginning of our session.”


“Thank goodness for the ones who have seen me in action enough to know I have to be twice as competent as my male counterparts to keep my seat in this industry. My technical capabilities, my experience running our software and managing sessions with counterparts phoned in from all over the world and actors trying to re-create special moments caught on film that need re-dubbing for sound, are top notch in my field. One small mess up from me isn’t just a small hit against me, or my company, but a hit for all female engineers. The pressure not just to show up and do well but to blow expectations out of the water is tremendous. And it is my daily work.”


This is what it can be like to be a female audio engineer in film and TV. “To score the kind of job I have is huge, to get to work in this industry is a privilege and I don’t take any of it for granted. But being a woman in this role is still, even in the year 2022, a role that requires a defense of my gender; a role that others do not expect to be filled by someone like me. Less than 5% of audio engineers in this field are female. Less than 5%. And every single day of our professional lives, we women are fighting to be taken seriously, and to show that we are just as capable as our male counterparts.”  


“Sure, it’s a joy to be put in a box and, through good work and technical expertise, bust out of it. But it would be even better to be met at the outset with the professional respect and the confidence that I am capable. Just like anyone would assume of any man in my position.”


Next time you walk in a studio, if you’re lucky enough to see a woman at the helm, sit back and prepare yourself to be wowed. Because if she’s there, it’s hard-fought, well-earned, and you can rest assured that you are in the very best of hands.


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