Are we, women in music, collectively overreacting?


It’s been almost two months since March 8th. International Women’s Day. The annual culmination of weeks of increased press attention for successful women and opinion pieces on the importance of female trailblazers. The one day when the world collectively agrees to shine a light on the important ladies in their lives. This year was no different, and thanks to its many key actors in the public eye, the music industry was a prominent part of the many discussions.

In the build-up to International Women’s Day, we’ve seen concert venues, promotors, labels and brands enthusiastically announcing their initiatives to push for more gender equality. Ancienne Belgique’s programming coordinator was interviewed about their ‘surprisingly female line-up’ to BRDCST Festival (1). Keychange, a UK initiative, released the 45 festivals who pledge to achieve a 50/50 gender balance on their programming by 2022 (2). David Byrne was forced to publicly apologize for the fact that his latest album release includes 25 collaborators, but none of them female (3).

In 2017 women claimed their spots, unapologetically taking up more space than before and bravely standing up to anything from online trolls to institutional injustices. Women called out sexual harassment and assault, sometimes after decades of silence, through the #MeToo campaign. The music industry saw both Ke$ha and Taylor Swift on the forefront of this movement, with different but very personal stories. All of a sudden, thanks to power in numbers, women felt empowered to take a step forward. Girls supporting girls was a strong theme over the past year. We have never gotten as much exposure, understanding, support and responsibility in our industry as right now.

So that poses the question...

Are we, women in music, collectively overreacting? After all, the first International Women’s Day was held in 1914 in Germany - after a few isolated attempts in Austria, the United States and Russia. Back then, women had fundamental problems to focus on; education, representation, employment, voting rights. Nowadays, women have more opportunities, even in a challenging industry as music and entertainment, than they had 104 years ago. How urgent are our needs and wishes, and how fiery should our fight be?

The answer to this question is as nuanced as the shift of the problem. Yes, we have access to music education. We are legally allowed to go to concerts by ourselves. Girl bands are no longer a rarity. We have a ton of strong female role models in all genres, from pop (Beyoncé, Charli XCX, Dua Lipa) to rock (HAIM, Karen O, Björk) and electronic music (TOKiMONSTA, Charlotte de Witte, Nina Kraviz). Rebecca Allen, the managing director of Decca records, even says: “I honestly believe that the door is wide open to women. Young women I’ve come across in the last few years have no fear and quite frankly stand as tall, if not taller, than their male colleagues.” (4) So if we can’t agree on the problem, then what are we fighting for?


We are held back by assumptions.

A recent study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows that only 12 percent of the most popular 600 songs from the last six years were written by women. Female producers only made up 2 percent for the top 300 in the same time period. (5) Pitchfork crunched some numbers as well and found that festival bookings remain far from gender-neutral. Of the 996 acts they logged, only 14 percent were female, with an additional 12 percent from groups with male and female (or non-binary) members. (6) Of 899 individuals nominated for a Grammy Award between 2013 and 2018, 90.7% were male. (7) Neil Portnow, former president of the Recording Academy which presents the Grammy Awards each year, came under scrutiny after he told women to ‘step up’ and that ‘they would be welcomed’, suggesting that female musicians are not already doing so. These skewed statistics and anecdotes have created the false idea that men are more successful at what they do and that women are just not as present in this industry as men.

This perpetuated myth trickles down to other areas as well. On the organizational side of things, we see that women make up 60% of interns, 59% of entry-level business roles, but only 30% of senior executive positions. (8) This proves that women are present, but somewhere along the way, they get discouraged from reaching higher and getting promoted to senior roles. A personal story from Ruth Jiang, (9) marketing manager at Bit Bird, shows the gravity of this discouragement. “Quite often, as a woman backstage, you hear comments like “She must be someone’s girlfriend.” It’s impossible to respond to all of it, and it shouldn’t matter, but it’s very demotivating.”

Assumptions that men work better in leadership are damaging to women’s careers. We need to highlight more women in creative and senior roles to combat the idea that they don’t exist, are not qualified or don’t have the ambition.


There are still underrepresented niches in the music industry, like music tech.

Bas Grasmayer, Director of Product at IDAGIO and founder of the Music Tech Network recently released a list of female founders in the music tech industry. This included all tech platforms, apps, software and hardware that directly have a purpose in music. On this list are only 24 female founders. (10) Compare this to the vast amount of male founders there are, it’s clear that music tech still has a long way to go in gender equality. A lot of this has to do with the fundamental imbalance in STEM fields, but the fickle conditions and aforementioned assumptions in the music industry only add to this inequality.

And then there’s engineering and producing. SoundGirls, a global organization which supports and connects women in music production and sound engineering, claims that women make up just 5% of all professional producing and engineering jobs, based on an estimate of the Audio Engineering Society in 2000. That means that the vast majority of music we listen to on a daily basis has been produced, engineered, shaped through the ears of a man. No woman has ever won the Grammy for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical). Encouraging and inspiring future generations of girls to take up jobs on the technical side of music will be one of our biggest challenges.


We can’t forget about minorities.

Things have started to change, yes, but predominantly for white cis women. That doesn’t mean, however, that our fight ends there. The music industry employs a diverse multitude of people, and as long as we don’t have equality for women of colour, women with disabilities and women in the LGBTQ community, we can’t end our efforts.

Statistics don’t give an accurate idea on the issues for minorities in the music industry. In 2017, for example, 8 out of 14 successful artists in the Billboard Top 100 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Although a positive statistic, this only mirrors the receptivity of the audiences to welcome people of colour on their iPods and Spotify playlists and doesn’t address the situation within the music industry. Looking behind the curtain, the stories are rather sombre. Women of colour have to work significantly harder to prove that they’ve earned a seat at the table, and are dealing with very specific assumptions. Carron Mitchell, entertainment attorney at Nixon Peabody LLP in Los Angeles, can attest: “As a person of colour some people will assume you only work within limited genres of music, like urban and hip-hop. That’s absolutely not the case.” (11) Similarly, Stacie Anderson, producer at Z100 and artist relations and booking for the iHearts Dunkin Donuts Lounge, says: “The one concern I have is when dealing with resolutions of a conflict or disagreements. I have to be extra careful with how I express my feelings because what would be considered assertive behaviour for some will be stereotyped as “The Angry Black Woman” for me.” (12)

A big advocate for more equality in this field is former M.I.A. ­drummer Kiran Gandhi, aka Madam Gandhi. She saw this issue as an opportunity to push other female producers into the ­spotlight. In October 2017, she released a remixed ­version of her Voices EP with each track ­produced by a woman of colour. (13)

LGBTQ representation in the music industry is even more problematic. Finding statistics is nearly impossible and the conversation is being held very limitedly on a few panels at music conferences, but we haven’t seen much impact in the music industry so far.

Initiatives like’s Alternative Power 100 List - a reaction to Billboard’s annual Power 100 List - are important to bring to light the many female trailblazers and open the discussion on diversity in our industry. For this year’s shortlist, asked for submission of nominees specifically with a minority background. The list was made public on April 24th. (14) Another project to keep an eye on is the GRRRL collective, which connects female musicians from all over the world, specifically from areas of conflict. The collaboration stemming from these interesting dynamics is positively celebrated during live concerts across the world. They are currently touring in Australia.

It’s been almost two months since International Women’s Day and the initial hype and enthusiasm have faded. Women in the music industry are yet again a statistic or an anecdote, but no longer the focus. Are we overreacting? Not at all. The problems have shifted and so should our strategies. Slowly, through local initiatives and small-scale battles, we will have to keep making progress.

Claïs Lemmens