I spend a lot of time figuratively scratching my head. Mostly because I’m a smart-a**, I’m sure. But is it just me? Don’t you ever wonder if we just don’t spend most of our time, as people, on autopilot?
These latest posts about “why aren’t there more women audiophiles” from Marc, Kirsten and Cookie, all speak to a common thread — for whatever reason, there appears to be a sex gap in audio’s high-end.
I know, this is hardly novel or in any way surprising.
Reading through a few of the more head-scratching posts out there, with all the men sitting around in circles wondering aloud as to why this might be, is where the head-scratching turns to head-pounding.
If you want to know why women are underrepresented in “the hobby”, this thread on Steve Hoffman Music Forums should help clear it up. Here, lemme save you the trouble — audiophiles are sexist. Who in their right mind would really want to deal with all that? I’m really not sure it’s any more complicated than that.
I’m going to dismiss, at a glance and a sweep, all of the absurdly anecdotal BS about how the “gentler sex” (pardon me while I throw up in my mouth a little) are somehow either gifted with extrasensory abilities or cursed with some kind of extraordinary sensitivity. It’s all crap — logically, we can safely and rightly label this entire line of obfuscatory masturbation as “non sequitur.”
The real reason more women don’t line up and buy high-end audio gear? No one told them they ought to.
At least, not here. This doesn’t seem to be quite so true in Europe, especially given the wild success that events like High End Munich have had with drawing rather diverse crowds. But North America seems a bit backwards. I submit that US-based manufacturers just haven’t really marketed to women. I don’t know why, but I have some suspicions we’ll get to shortly. For now, I’ll offer that, somewhere along the line, I can imagine that the “gender gap thing” spun into a whirlpool of self-sustaining myth. “Women don’t buy audio gear, so why bother to market to them?”
Given that the audio’s high-end has been variously described as “being on its death bed” or in “a death spiral” or “deathy death deathing death-death of death”, you’d be forgiven if someone, somewhere, didn’t stand up and say “Hey, we might have overlooked a demographic here”. Someone like Apple. Or Bose. Or B&O. Oh, right. Not everyone has overlooked women.
The whole “lifestyle” movement should have done a couple of things, but oddly, did not. One, it really ought to have convinced someone intelligent that women do in fact buy things that make sound. Or at the least, influence those decisions. Duh. Two, it should really have made more people say, “Maybe I’m doing this wrong”. Instead, the term ‘lifestyle’, at least in audio, is an epithet, not a common strategy.
I think it’s patently obvious that women will buy anything that men will, and for many of the same reasons, if given half a chance. Women are not men, no, but they’re not aliens, either. Talking about the situation, however, we seem very likely to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Just remember — your wife, and your screwed-up relationship with her and your hobbies, are not a reflection of her or her interests. Nor are they translatable in any meaningful way.
My wife is an audiophile. She would balk at the label, however. She thinks we’re all nuts. “How much does that cost?!?” she squeaks, her voice rising with every syllable. Then, the blood vessel bursts and fire rains from the sky.
But this is not an instance of the “women hate audio” cliché. No, this is worse. This is “Scot is an introvert and absolutely lousy about sharing anything, much less his interests.”
Let me tell you a story.
Random Story About Wine
My wife has a good palate. She also has a penchant for the underdog. And she’s cheap. “Know thyself” and all that. So, when we got into wine, we quickly found we had a problem — and yes, I say “we” got into wine. She and I, together, decided to explore the wonderful world of the grape, and it’s an enduring hobby that we still take quite a bit of pleasure in. Interestingly, we “got there” along with a growing interest in better food — together, these interests led to a dramatic improvement in our quality of life. Well, at least until the kids came along and sent that particular aspect of our life together skidding across the floor to slam into a wall. Hmmpf. Anyway. About wine.
For reasons not clear until later (she’s as much an introvert as I was), I got the job of wine shopper. To accomplish that job, I’d usually lean on the tried-and-true method of actually tasting them, but most wine shops aren’t all that happy when you start randomly uncorking bottles, and wine-tasting events were not always convenient. So, I cheated. I started reading.
That was my first mistake.
Not that I was learning. No. It was more that I wasn’t sharing that exploration — I simply, and rather quickly, knew more than she did. That made it less fun for her. And that was the beginning of the end.
We didn’t stop drinking. No. That’s silly. But what I was learning led me to more and more “interesting” wine. Wine that was not, by and large, less expensive. When I started bringing home $40 bottles of wine for dinner, she raised the flag. That time I spent $500 on a case of wine, well, that was war.
It’s not that it was too expensive (which it was), or rather not only that, it was that I felt that this expense was somehow justified because of my special knowledge, knowledge she didn’t have and that I hadn’t shared. There was no story of “how I got there” that she could follow — she was completely out of the loop. I don’t know if she’d ever have agreed to buy that much of that expensive (but awesome — and for the record, under priced) vintage had she been with me at that particular tasting event, the point is, I’d passed a line. Somewhere. It didn’t help that we couldn’t afford to drink like this.
So, we sat down and talked about “our” hobby. The long-and-short of it was that I was still to do the shopping (that knowledge was important and useful), but I now had a cap: $10/bottle.
There was some precedent for such a thing being viable; we both knew that we could do a lot with that budget. And I did. I learned, and however screwed up it was by that point, she felt like she was able to be at least somewhat of an active (if absent) participant. A kludge, yes. But I did learn something interesting. I mean, aside from “don’t be a jerk.”
I found out, as I shopped, that my wife really did prefer “the good stuff”.
Yes, I experimented on her. Did I mention I’m a jerk? I got tired of the budgetary recommendations from Wine Advocate getting only a mediocre response from her, so I’d surreptitiously raise the budget for a “ringer” bottle every now and again. That is, I’d slip in a $15 bottle of the good stuff (well, “better” stuff).
Invariably, the comments would be more favorable. Not a huge variance, but it was unerring. How did she know? After the bazillionth such, we had a chat. I suggested that her personal experience could be improved by making a small, quantitative change. Sometimes, $10 wine is great. Sometimes, a $15 bottle is better. We talked about what we liked, what we were hoping to do, found a budget that made sense, but most importantly, we were open about it. Yes, my per-bottle budget … relaxed a bit after that. But that was our decision.
And when you come over, make sure you ask for “the good stuff” — we were saving the cheap stuff for you.
Random Story About Bose and A/V
My wife listens to my old Bose Wave Radio. I got that thing back in the late 1990’s, and it still works. It’s still terrible. But it works. Which means it’s still in service, even though it’s terrible. But aside from murdering it outright (the thought has crossed my mind), the clearest path to its eventual unseating seemed to be demonstration. I figured that what I needed was to show her what she’s missing. Like with the wine! But, not so sneaky.
As luck would have it, I was able to bring in some equipment from Sonos as part of another project. This was outside our budget, so there was no pressure on anyone to love anything. I put a Play:5 into the kitchen where that Bose lives, and played it for her.
The sound was clearer, with more punch and more life than the Bose managed on a good day, with a tailwind, running downhill. She was, in a word, impressed.
What left the kitchen? The iPod on the JVC speaker-dock. The Bose is still in there. But so is the Play:5.
What does that say? That my wife prizes functionality over performance? You could argue that, I suppose — the Sonos doesn’t “do” radio, and the Bose does. But had the Sonos supported FM radio, the Bose would have been history. Why? “Because it sounds better” — her words. Sound quality mattered. If it was only a question of sound quality, the question would have been settled. But it was never a question of something specifically feminine, a character flaw due to her sex, or about some intangible lifestyle thing. Her objection was specific and on-point — pulling the Bose and replacing it with the Play:5 would not have been an apples-to-apples upgrade. Weather and news would have been harder, not easier, and that’s why the Bose survives.
To recap, I was open with her about it. Slow. Solicited feedback. Tried real hard to not pressure her or swamp her with my enthusiasm or “superior knowledge”. And when things went … differently, I respected that feedback.
Sometimes, it takes patience to get this kind of communication right.
Several years ago, something related happened with our AV system. When I had the opportunity to put in a brand new rig when we moved in, I didn’t ask her about it at all. I just assembled the gear I thought best and slapped it on an audiophile rack that I knew would be great.
That system didn’t last, but not because the sound was bad. Because the sound was great. The problem is that I didn’t ask. I just read up on it, made my decisions, and just did it. Since she had no input, the only part she could see was the whole of it. So that’s where her objection hit. The whole of it.
A subsequent rework, based on her interests, desires, and goals, a courtesy I obviously should have aligned to the first time, resulted in a much more satisfying system — for her and for me. It was, interestingly and accidentally, a more expensive one. But yes, it sounded fantastic as well. She still thinks the TV is too big, but its eventual replacement will be a conversation, not some Executive Act.
I wonder what would have happened had we decided to explore audio’s high-end, together. Would she be covering audio shows now? She’s more qualified, to be honest — she’s a professional musician as well as a professional writer and editor. No, really. She is. I’m hoping that, with enough bread crumbs, I can let her find her own way to the hobby. And she’s starting. There’s now a turntable in her office. And so it begins.
Sexism in Audio
Fine, I did it wrong. I didn’t share. I just went and “did it” instead of exploring it with her — and that’s a hole it’ll probably take the rest of our relationship to climb out of. We’re working on it, so you can shut up now.
So, aside from the recommendation to not be a dick about your audio system, to let your partners actually be partners — both in the exploration and in the assembly, as well as the enjoyment — aside from all that, let’s talk a bit about the elephant in the room.
Audiophiles are a-holes. I’m not sure we mean to be. But I’m also not sure we don’t mean to not be. Let me explain.
If you haven’t been on an audio forum, or haven’t been lately, let me encourage you to continue to follow whatever instinct or impulse led you away in the first place. In short, don’t go.
It’s been years since I wallowed in audio forms. For a good while there, I dabbled in some borderline-addictive behavior. Because. Well. Somebody, somewhere, was wrong and as a self-appointed part of Plato’s Cave Search and Rescue Team, I had to help them, didn’t I?
I still dip my toes in here and there, but I’m just not tempted to bathe in them anymore. There are too many posters that are just a little too careless in how they present themselves, their opinions, and their attitudes. I am uncomfortable with idea that civility and dignity are some kind of jacket, that someone can carefully take off and hung up on the coat rack; what I find hitting the keyboard thereafter comes across as unwashed, unreasonable, and unrepentantly repulsive.
Characterized like this, how could you not want to go out and play? I can hear Malachi Kenney jumping up and down in anticipatory glee.
I say all this about audio forums with more than a little disdain, and for that, I’m sorry. I’m know that there are “good forums”. But, looking back at that thread on Steve Hoffman, I am amazed. Unsurprised, because I’m cynical, but still. How do you open a thread by wondering if women are somehow deficient, and then, in the same breath, stipulate that you’re not a sexist.
Oh, really? Do tell.
This is as distressing as it is commonplace. It’s not a man-thing, or not just a man-thing at least as far as I can see. At least a part of it is an Internet thing. The Internet is the place where the stuff we know we really ought to edit out of our interactions with “polite company” finally makes an escape into the light of day.
“Free-dom!” [Barf barf barf … barfing barf barf — BARF … barfing barf-barf BARF barfington barf-barf].
But there is a common thread. Other than obtuseness, that is. It’s this: all of the men “discussing the issue of women in audio” haven’t actually asked any. You know. Like this post. Ahem. In my defense, women are scary.
Not that it seems to matter, though. Occasionally, a woman does shows up on a thread, and perhaps even offers something cogent, only to receive the linguistic equivalent of a dismissive pat on the head and an off-hand comment about how “awesome” she is, how “she’s a keeper” and/or some kind of strange outlier and not really representative of her sex. Constructive, that. What that says to me, at least, is that these biases are rather durable.
Anyway, John Darko, bless his heart, actually did talk to a woman. Apparently, Darko knows people. Women, even. Who knew?
What’s best is that that’s not the half of it. I can’t tell you how tickled I am by Darko’s cleverness here. Personally, I object to the “your sex has nothing of value to say about topic [x]”. That’s reverse-whatever-ism. That’s annoying, and logically, more than a little backward.
But there is something here worth highlighting, not specifically with respect to high-end audio, but more about our society as a whole. Something that is a little hard to see when you’re hidden down in any particular foxhole.
Sometimes, you need a broader view. Not just an outsider’s view. Not a feminist’s view, particularly, either.
An expert’s view.
You see, Darko reached out to Yolanda Beattie, the Public Affairs Executive Manager at the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Sounds pretty “expert” to me. Ha ha! Oh, snap!
Beattie offered this:
“Encouraging greater female involvement in the hobby will also likely lead to growth in the market overall. (Dorgay made that point well). An industry that excludes half of the population will certainly limit its growth potential. If you want to be part of a thriving, dynamic, growing industry then making yourself relevant to men and women is a pre-requisite.”
“If we assume those reasons are sufficiently compelling, the next question is: why aren’t women attracted to hi-fi?”
“Most of the three articles answered that question well. The key point is there is no silver bullet solution. Gender segregation starts from birth; just look at the toys girls and boys have to choose from. I’m sure it has been a while since you strolled down the toys section at Kmart but let me tell you it’s depressing. Girls Lego is almost always pink and princessy and boys Lego is almost always fighter jets, transformers etc. There are very few gender-neutral options. We’re telling kids from a young age that construction is for boys and looking pretty is for girls.”
Though it makes me sick to say it, I think she’s dead on.
So, here’s the thing. You want to know where all the wimmins at? According to Beattie, if you think you’ve misplaced this rather plentiful demographic, it’s likely because we screwed something up. We, and yes, that includes you.
You, with your friends. You, with your wife. You, with your daughter.
We did this. We all did this, together.
… Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya ….
Assuming we, as a collected group of hobbyists, want this imbalance to change, I think there are things we can do.
One, stop abusing the language. “Wife Acceptance Factor”, and the whole set of us-vs-them, proprietary, entitled, exclusionary mentality that gets deployed unwittingly along with it — it does not help. “Man Cave”? “Gentler sex”? Seriously? Just. Stop. Yes, I’m talking about us changing our behavior. Get uncomfortable. That’s almost always the first step.
Two, start treating others as you want them to treat you. Not just random-others. And not just women-others. All others. This should be obvious, but when you treat others as soft-headed imbeciles, that tends to come home to roost with a vengeance. Just cut it out. ‘Respect’. It’s what you want. It’s what everyone wants. It’s what’s for dinner. Eat up, eat proud.
Three, you’re gonna need to reach out. The world’s greatest evangelists are the already-converted. Passion is infectious. This is assuming, of course, that you can manage to avoid coming across as a pompous know-it-all. Humility is a good by-word here. But humility and passion are useless unless there’s interaction. Get out and vote. Or something. Maybe go to an audio show. Talk about audio to your friends at a party (maybe only a little, though). Bring an audio gadget with you places. This is what I love about Mike Mercer — the guy is a walking audio church. Chances are, he’s got something really nifty on his person and he is completely ready to whip it out. Which may or may not be problematic. But he shares. All the time. And you should too.
Four, see women as a valued asset to the hobby. If you’re a manufacturer, go talk to a marketing expert. If you’re in sales, or even just a hobbyist, actually talk to women — not past them, near them, or around them. Treat everyone — men and women alike — like professional colleagues. Just remember, if what you’re about to say would get you in trouble with a rep from Human Resources, don’t say it! It’s really not that hard. If you must, try assuming that she’s a bigger nerd than you are — it’s possible that she might be. Remind me to tell you the story of the first time I met EveAnna Manley. Or Cookie Marenco. Nerds, both of them.
Finally, art appreciation begins at home. The stereo is not to be feared. If it’s dangerous to operate, you’re doing it wrong.
Teach your kids how to use it responsibly — better still, start them on their own stereo adventure when they’re old enough and responsible enough. No child of any self-respecting audiophile should be listening to Kanye West on a boom box. Take charge of that sh*t and get them right with the Sultans of Swing, pronto-burger.
There’s more, I’m sure, but this will probably be a good start.
Feel free to chime in with your comments, below.