Sexism in music swept under the rug

An insight into gender inequality in the Australian music industry

Of all professions in the music industry, sound engineering and producing are the most unequal in terms of gender diversity. Worldwide, women occupy 5% of record producing and sound engineering positions. This gender inequality is also the least recognised in the Australian music industry. It’s these behind-the-scene positions that are recurrently driven and strengthened by established male professionals and it’s this hierarchy that leads to inequality we see across the music board.

A Sydney University study released  last  year labelled  women  in  Australian   music “chronically disadvantaged”. The study suggested women are facing double the disadvantage, with men in the industry deciding “who makes it”.  It’s a strange, concealed issue that comes to light in annual waves—sparked in festival-related discussions of line up complaints, or in the Triple J Hottest 100 releases which provide measurable statistics. It’s there for a moment and then it’s gone, and the momentum for change must rebuild itself once more.

At only 20 years of age, Australian artist Odette released her debut album, had her single Watch Me Read You’ hit number 56 in the Triple J hottest 100, and announced an Australian tour.Odette uses her platform to highlight how far the music industry has come and how far it still needs to go. She says, “Often women in the industry are told how to be polite and how to act…but you just have to speak your mind, stand by what you believe in and keep going.”

Statistically, it’s irrefutable that men continue to dominate positions in the music industry. In 2016, 72% of newly appointed APRA members were male, while the membership make-up of public board positions on Australian music bodies were over 65% male, a Triple J study showed. For performers, statistics are similar. “Women represent only one-fifth of composers registered with APRA, despite making up 45% of qualified musicians and half [of all students] studying music,” says Dr Rae Cooper, who authored the Sydney University study.

“I’ve worked with maybe three female producers and I’ve been in this game for a while now. It’s disheartening but when I do work with female producers it’s amazing,” Odette says.

While there have been obvious developments in the music industry regarding gender equality, the question that remains is whether developments are able to continue in constructive ways.

Emily Collins, Managing Director of Music NSW, is concerned about current conversations that publicise gender imbalance without creating lasting change. “There’s a lot shifting and we need to make sure it’s deep change as opposed to superficial conversations,” she says.

In this “the media can play a really crucial and often damaging role.”

“Journalists are still asking what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry and I think women in the music industry are sick of being portrayed as particularly women artists. Artists are artists first.”

These representations affect young women breaking into the industry.

“I know there was negative feedback from women in the industry about the Sydney University study. It wasn’t telling the story of all the good things that are happening as well,” Collins says. “You can’t talk about nothing changing without talking about things that are changing.”

Peterson reflected on the fact that this industry depends a lot on who you know. “It makes sense if those communities are male based. Male on male interaction feeds and there ends up being less women in the environment. It makes it harder to break into but I think we’re starting to.”

Ultimately it seems we should be working to remove unconscious biases, and that starts with educating the younger generation about feminism. 54% of Australian year 12 students studying music are female. Flash forward into professional employment and only 29% of people who specified ‘music professional’ in the census were female. At what point, and at what rate, do these characteristics shift?

Working with women in the industry is a priority for Odette.

“People often can get a bit standoffish if I ask to work with a female musician. Mostly wondering if it matters whether they’re male or female and asking ‘don’t you want the best musician?’ and I understand that completely. However, the ratios off.”

“We’re not at a point where we can say it doesn’t matter. Because it does. Representation matters, inclusiveness matters and it’s important to be including women in all spaces.”

Certainly, female musicians are gaining traction in the current music landscape.

51 songs in Triple J’s hottest 100  are either led by or include female musicians. Music NSW’s Women in Electronic Music workshops and Triple J’s Girls to the Front program also work to remove unconscious biases.

Emily Collins says although Music NSW doesn’t have any policies exclusively concerning women, they still “have a 60% female board…an all-female staff…most of our programs are around women and that’s just because, that’s where we want to work.”

This industry is just one cog in the social and cultural understandings of the rights, roles and representations of women—understandings that begin early. As such, education plays a huge role. It’s up to the music industry to work with these institutions in order to  create an inclusive culture in our music industry.