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Closing the Gender Gap

In the 1970s, AVI-SPL's Helene Andersen remembers there weren't many women working in pro AV. Over the years, that's changed ... for the better.

Closing the Gender Gap

In the 1970s, AVI-SPL’s Helene Andersen remembers there weren’t many women working in pro AV. Over the years, that’s changed … for the better.

When Heléne Andersen, general manager at AVI-SPL and a recipient of InfoComms 2010 Women in AV Award, got started in pro AV, there werent many women in the business. While she faced some challenges early, she overcame them. Our industry changed … when InfoComm became a strong force for education, she says.

Credit: Tracy Powell

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far the pro av industry has come that when the president and 24-year veteran of AV integration giant AVI-SPL retired in September, no mention was made of the fact that Stephenie Scanlon was a woman. In a male-dominated industry, Scanlon did everything from sell AV systems to launch AVI-SPL University. In announcing her retirement, AVI-SPL executive chairman Marty Schaffel cited her “great work ethic” and her “passion for greatness and perfection.” But there was no mention about what else made her a unique AV industry executive. And that’ s a welcome sign.

Today, the number of women in AV are growing, bringing unique perspectives and expertise to a changing industrythough it hasn’t always been a smooth ride toward acceptance. Scanlon’s former colleague Heléne Andersen, CTS, general manager in AVI-SPL’s Boston office, has witnessed the slow evolution of gender equality in the profession for 35 years.

“When I first started in AV, my gender was an issue because it was the early 1970s and not many women were working in the business,” says Andersen, winner of InfoComm’s 2010 Women in AV award. “I landed my first AV job at GBC, the manufacturer of closed-circuit television cameras, and worked my way up. Even as a manager, I could sit at the table equal with the men, but they would still look at me to get the coffee.”

A few years into her career, Andersen was promoted to branch manager at GBC. A group of men from a prominent Japanese manufacturer arrived for a meeting and refused to speak with her when they realized she was a woman. “They didn’t speak to women in business so it was highly unusual for them,” she says. “I fought the gender fight by not running away from the issue and [by] treating men as my equals. I always dressed professionally and never made my gender the message. Eventually, men got to know me and treated me as an equal.”

There were no programs or initiatives promoting women in the workplace, especially early in Andersen’s career. As a result, she experienced very little female influence on the job. Instead, she focused on training and development, taking every opportunity to learn more about AV technology. “Our industry changed in the 1980s when what is now InfoComm became a strong force for education and certification,” she says. “Until then, the only training available was dealer training from manufacturers.” Education was the earliest avenue to greater opportunity.

These days there are many opportunities for women to join the AV industry, including exposure to advanced AV systems at an earlier age. Jennifer Willard, CTS, the supervising AV systems technical analyst for the California courts, traces her AV experience back to high school.

“We had a fully functioning broadcast studio with a focus on learning, not gender. My college also had a TV station,” says Willard, the first female supervisor in her group and the first woman to win InfoComm’s Young AV Professionals Award in 2010. She currently oversees AV systems design and implementation in courthouses throughout the state, serves on InfoComm’s Standards Committee, and is an industry liaison to the American Institute of Architects Academy of Architecture for Justice. “My gender has never been an issue in the AV world,” she says.

Knowledge Is Power

Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been a factor in how she approaches her job. Willard says that even though she’s worked with women throughout her career, she’s often the only female in the room when AV solutions are discussed. As a result, she feels the need to know more about or be better prepared to discuss technology than her male counterparts. That way there’s no perceived knowledge gap that mighterroneouslybe attributed to her gender.

Dawn Meade, CTS, owner and director of marketing and AV sales for Advanced Video Systems, can sympathize. “I’ve done a lot to counter those ‘clueless girl’ perceptions,” she explains. “I take field work and my education seriously and make sure I know what I am talking about when dealing with manufacturers or clients.”

Meade, who is currently pursuing both a master’s degree in business administration and a master’s in technology management from the University of Maryland, says the fact that girls are encouraged to participate more in science and math has been key to steering young women into AV. And once they’re there, InfoComm’s Certified Technology Specialist certification can open career doors. “I know that gender bias exists and that I sometimes have to know more than the average AV guy to be viewed as equal,” Meade says. “I make the extra effort because I don’t want to feed stereotypes.”

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Closing the Gender Gap

In the 1970s, AVI-SPL’s Helene Andersen remembers there weren’t many women working in pro AV. Over the years, that’s changed … for the better.

Even in the 21st century, those stereotypes can rear their ugly heads. Ronnie Anne Spang, CTS, videoconference engineer with York Telecom, has worked in AV since 2004 and has been involved with electronics since high school. Several years ago, she says, she was working on-site for a large defense contractor who was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on AV systems. “I was there to design, program, and integrate their systems, but was met with open hostility,” Spang says. “They had a hard time accepting that a woman was the programmer.”

The client put Spang to the test, and she won them over by solving every problem they threw at her. “I told them, ‘If you can imagine it, I can make it happen.’ They challenged me with ever-changing parameters. But I didn’t give up and they eventually accepted that I had the skills to program their system,” she says.

Mentors Wanted

Unfortunately, despite the growing influence of women in the pro AV industry, it can be hard as a woman to learn from someone else’s experiences. Willard says finding a female mentor can be difficult because, although their numbers are increasing, women in AV are spread out all over the country. She uses InfoComm’s Women in AV special interest group as an online resource to reach out and learn about other women’s experiences.

“Learn and understand the AV business, stay up-to-date with the technology, and continue your education,” Willard advises other women in AV. “The opportunities are here; you just have to be prepared to take them.”For her part, Meade attends the Women in NSCA reception at the annual InfoComm trade show to make new contacts, and she recently joined the Female AV Executives (FAVE) group (, a start-up organization that debuted at InfoComm 2009.”Don’t be afraid to be a woman in AV, even if you’re treated as one of the guys,” Meade says. “We’re a different creature and it doesn’t make us any less qualified, so embrace being a woman.””It’s not always about knowing more or being taken seriously as a woman,” Spang says. “Any company that doesn’t hire women, or the disabled, or minorities is really missing out on new perspectives. Women see things that men don’t see, and vice versa.”Like the others, Heléne Andersen remains grounded in reality but not defined by it. “It’s still a male-dominated industry,” she says, “but you can succeed based on your capabilities. Be smart and you will do as well as any man.”

Linda Seid Frembes is a freelance AV writer and contributing editor to Pro AV.

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