‘Little girls playing’: Music industry’s gender bias


Is music universal or is the industry fair and professional to men only? Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

Women in the music industry are thought of as “little girls playing” by male colleagues and performers, research has found.

Interviews with women in the management side of the sector have found their competence is perceived according to gender and they have to adapt their behaviour to be accepted by men.

Speaking at the recent Musicians’ Union (MU) conference in Glasgow, Scotland, researchers also highlighted women pioneers in sound engineering all but wiped out from history.

Union officials said progress had been made in the past decade, but admitted gender is still an issue that is not being addressed in the industry.

‘Hang on, where’s the big guy?’

Dr Marion Leonard, lecturer at the University of Liverpool’s school of music and author of the 2007 book “Gender in the Music Industry”1 said she interviewed 14 women in London and Brighton who worked in music management.

Previous surveys in the UK have found women represent just 20 per cent of management teams and 23 per cent of music promotion, explained Dr Leonard. Other sections of the industry have even fewer women.

In some cases, certain roles such as technical ones such as sound recording, have a “culturally understood fit with masculinity”. Some segregated posts carry prestige over others.

Men used shared leisure activities to re-enforce male workplace culture and women had to adjust their behaviour to fit in even while they were being treated differently.

One interviewee refused to learn to type simply so she would not be sidelined as someone’s assistant. Another did largely administrative duties while not being able to go on the road with touring work because she was “more naturally suited” to an office role. Excuses given included, “You’re not experienced enough”, or “Oh, they want a male tour manager” or “I don’t think it’s a sensible idea for you to go”.

One woman working in artist management said most expected the role to be for men and questioned her legitimacy.

She told Dr Leonard: “I just felt like a little girl playing, do you know what I mean? I was made to feel like, all the time, ‘Hey, hang on, where’s the big guy? Where’s the real manager?’”[Tweet “”I was made to feel like, ‘Hey, hang on, where’s the big guy?””]

Dr Leonard concluded: “Women professionals detailed how they frequently had to navigate, disrupt or work with assumptions about their competencies, status, their ambitions, which were then informed by gendered expectations by their colleagues.

“In interviews, women identified how they had to adapt their behaviour to be accepted within masculinist work environments, where they are judged by how effectively they could assimilate the existing culture while at the same time being assessed and treated different as women.

“To understand how gender inequalities persist in the music industries, it’s important to consider not just interpersonal dynamics but also the broader structure and work culture of the sector.

“Networking is important for finding work opportunities and for maintaining contacts. Socialising is part of the practice of work and so ‘fitting in’ is crucial.”

Interviewees in the research were quoted anonymously because they did not want to be seen to be speaking out about sexism and gender issues. They didn’t want to be viewed as “causing a stir”.

Dr Leonard continued: “Women can find it difficult to break into and establish themselves in male-dominated professional networks and this can be especially difficult with working in contexts where certain types of masculine or even sexist behaviour are the norm.

“While this research is qualitative and based on a small sample of respondents, it indicates that ideas about gender provide a foundation for inequality in the music industries as gender continues to structure the experience of work and impact on the opportunities afforded to individuals. Identifying how this happens and learning from the experience of music workers can hopefully help to inform and change future practice.”

‘This shit still happens’

At an earlier session at the conference, independent researchers Jane Dickson and Anneke Kampman highlighted the careers of Daphne Oram and Elaine Radique. Along with Delia Derbyshire, these composers and pioneers in electronic music have been largely written out of history. Derbyshire created the original Doctor Who theme music, which is recognised in credits for the show even today under the composer’s name, Ron Grainer.

Sheena Macdonald, regional organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland with the MU,2 was in the audience for the conference and said there were fewer women in the music industry in general, and the union reflected that.

Of about 30,000 MU members in the UK and 2,200 in Scotland, only about 30 per cent are women. The top positions for the national executive of the union are all men, though the office staff in Scotland are all women. Only in the past decade has there been a chairwoman of the executive committee and an equalities officer, though no position addressing specific gender issues.

“When I’m dealing with my own members,” said Ms Macdonald, “nine times of dealing with issues it will be with a manager who’s a bloke or an agent who’s a bloke or a promoter who’s a bloke. Just in general terms, there’s less women inside the music industry at a more senior level than there is blokes.

“In general it is just seen as ‘that’s just the way it is’ and it’s not seen as an issue. For those of us working on the front line, I think we do see where there are differences and where there are issues specific to women, or might be more of an issue for women – for example, working late at night, issues around health and safety at work, issues in terms of employment – that are more gender specific.”

Ms Macdonald said the general public would be largely unaware of musician pay, conditions or the factors affecting women, including safety at gigs, an issue that has been increasingly in the spotlight.

She admitted he had never heard of Daphne Oram or Elaine Radique prior to the conference and recognised many of the comments from Dr Leonard’s research.

“I thought what was particularly interesting that in order to be those pioneers they had to have their own means to fit inside a little organisation or have employment somewhere where they could tinker about with those things – they had to be women of means,” Ms Macdonald told Tomorrow by phone after the conference.

“[Dr Leonard’s work] all rang really, really true from my experience of both being a woman working inside the music industry itself but also of our members’ experience.

“On the one hand it was heartening to know that this is an experience shared. But what was disheartening about it was, ‘bloody hell we’re in the 21st century and this shit still happens’.[Tweet “”Bloody hell we’re in the 21st century and this shit still happens””]

“And I think it certainly made me realise about really looking at some of the issues around gender and around women working in the music industry and looking at solutions at how that gets solved.

“It may be that things have moved on a bit, but about how we as women change attitudes so that we don’t encounter the kind of comments and issues that Marion highlighted in her research.”

– Information about the conference and research conducted through the University of Glasgow into the MU archives has been presented on a dedicated website.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.
  1. Dr Marion Leonard university profile page.
  2. Regional page for the MU.

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