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Women in Music #IWD2016

Highlights from our International Women’s Day panel on the challenges facing women in the music industry, and how we can overcome them.

Jote Osahn, Rebecca Pickles and Sara Lowes at Women in Music panel

From left: Jote Osahn, Rebecca Pickles and Sara Lowes

Tuesday 8 March marked International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of women so far and looking at how we have still to go to reach true equality. The MU spent the day in Manchester, hosting a panel on the challenges facing women in music. Check out some of the highlights...

Sexism is a universal experience. All the women on the panel have experienced sexism as part of their working lives. “Patriarchy is the problem,” says Claire Mooney (songwriter and performer), “We suffer from it if you realise it or not. Women make up 51% of the population but we are still seen as a minority.” Natalie McCool (singer, songwriter and guitarist) agrees, “Things seem to have improved over the last few years. When it happens you don’t realise it until afterward…. Maybe we’re all just used to it so we don’t notice it anymore.”

Sexism often comes from other musicians. Rebecca Pickles (vocalist, event manager and one-third of The Pipettes) talks about her experiences, “We aren’t taken as seriously as musicians. It’s assumed that as women we won’t understand the technical side of things. Sound Engineers often assume we don’t know what we’re talking about.” It’s a common experience – “It’s almost like they’re pissed off when you come to a venue to do a gig. They don’t treat men the same way. If I spend time doing a sound check, making sure everything is right, I’m seen as difficult,” adds Natalie.

There’s pressure to look a certain way. “Even if you’ve worked hard to create an image you are comfortable with, you still don’t get the final say on how you look. Even if we’re not sexual, we are reported as being so. People used to try and take photographs up my skirt when I was performing. I had to wear shorts underneath my dresses to stop them. This could have compromised the way I perform but I didn’t let it,” says Rebecca. “A lot of sexism comes from the image driven music industry. Would a guy be subjected to that in the same way a woman is?” asks Natalie.

It’s harder for women to reach the top. Billboard’s Power 100 features an all-male top 10, and only 9 women in the entire list. Why is that? Jote Osahn (violinist, string arranger and composer) highlights the perception that music is a man’s world. “As a woman you’re made to feel unwelcome, especially in the more technical jobs. You have to work twice as hard and prove yourself as a woman.”

Female musicians have been written out of the history of music. “We’ve been whitewashed. It makes me really sad to think history has been forgotten or replaced with men,” says Natalie. “I taught a workshop to children and they didn’t realise that women could play electric guitar because they’d never seen it before.”

It’s also harder for women to make a living wage from music. “As we work in our own niches we may not realise we are being paid less but I’m sure it happens,” says Rita Ray (writer, composer, DJ). “It’s up to you to step up and say what you should be paid. As women we give away power by being too apologetic. There’s no need to be rude but we need to tell it like it is. It’s your right, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone to talk like this, you have to say it like it is.”

Employers react differently to female musicians negotiating their fee. “Places like BIMM and LIPA teach negotiation skills as part of their courses,” says Jote, “We need those skills to survive in this industry. It wasn’t like that when I started my career. I contacted the MU a lot to help me sort things out.”

Some journalists will use stereotypes to define you. This was a big challenge for Rebecca; “When I was in the Pipettes we positioned ourselves to avoid these types of questions. We were still labelled as the cute one, the sexy one and the librarian one because of the way we dressed. They use stereotypes to define us. This type of thing enables lazy journalism. We would be asked questions like, ‘Why did you choose to wear polka dots?’ Journalists never asked questions about our music and the historical references we used. They weren’t interested that we’d took our inspiration from the girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s.”

But that doesn’t make press pointless. “You can use these types of interviews to you your advantage,” suggests Rita. “When you’re being interviewed use your position of power to talk about what you want to talk about. Don’t be drawn in to stupid narratives.”

If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s okay to say so. “Look at Kesha as an example… Don’t feel you have to allow men to cross the line, because it’s your producer or someone in a position of power you don’t have to let them behave in an inappropriate way. Don’t think that you’ll lose everything for sticking up for yourself or not doing what someone says,” says Jote.

The Musicians’ Union is on your side. If you’ve been affected by any of the issues here or want advice on negotiating a higher fee, dealing with bullying and harassment at work, or any other issue affecting you as a working musician, get in touch.

Published: 14/03/2016

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