This International Women’s Day, we examine the underrepresentation of women behind the scenes of the music industries, and how finding and supporting the right grassroots organisations can change that.
Gender bias within the music industries is a longstanding, systemic issue.
The music industry might try to change the record, but the song still plays the same.
While female performers are fighting a public battle for recognition, in behind the scenes roles, women are even more under-represented.
“There is still a worrying gender imbalance in the music industry and more work needs to be done to address this,” Jessie Maryon Davies told Youth Music. A pianist and composer, Jessie is also the co-founder and co-director of Girls Rock London, a small music charity based in Hackney dedicated to amplifying the voices of marginalised genders.
“Lots of industry roles remain cis male-dominated – e.g., backline staff and those in management positions…There is a lack of proactive initiatives in place to change these things. Stereotyping is also a very real problem, and we frequently experience marginalised genders being forced to inhibit themselves in certain ways,” Jessie added.
Female representation behind the curtain
To give a taste of female underrepresentation in non-performance roles, USC Annenberg’s Inclusion in the Recording Studio report (2022) found that across 1,100 popular songs from 2012 - 2022, just 12.8% of songwriters and 2.8% of producers were women.
UK Music’s 2022 Diversity Report found that while women occupy a large proportion of entry-level music industry positions (63.5%), women are still underrepresented overall at senior level, accounting for less than half (45.1%) of senior leadership jobs. The Jaguar Foundation Progressing Gender Representation in UK Dance Music report (2022) revealed that in live music industry particularly, this disparity is even more prominent. Women occupy 37% of senior roles whilst men occupy 63%. Considering that the split of men and women working within the live music industry is almost 50-50*, this underrepresentation at senior level is concerning.
“Now is not the time for more research, now is the time for action,” Youth Music CEO Matt Griffiths affirmed. “This means investment in these grassroots music projects, which provide equal opportunities for young people to access music and in turn nurtures a more diverse pipeline of talent.”
Although movement is happening to achieve a more balanced gender parity in music industry roles, organisations need to push for a more Intersectional representation of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse women, as well as those who are non-binary or prefer to self-describe their gender.
*43% female and 51% males making up employees (6% unattributable), Jaguar Foundation Progressing Gender Representation in UK Dance Music report (2022)
What is causing this gender imbalance?
It is crucial that to increase female representation in behind-the-scenes music industry roles - such as producing, engineering, songwriting and management – women need access to learning and education from an early age.
“It’s always been a boys’ club, and that’s not just in terms of DJs, but the people behind the scenes as well,” DJ and producer Michelle Manetti said in the Jaguar Foundation report. “I think if the people behind the scenes, from the managers [to] the people running the labels, all of these are majority men…That isn’t going to encourage more women to come forward.”
To make matters worse, Inclusion in the Recording Studio reported that at the Grammy’s, just 1.7% of Producer of the Year nominees from 2013 – 2023 were women. No wonder #GrammysSoMale trended on Twitter after the 2018 awards…
That same year, the Recording Academy president Neil Portnow infamously said that women need to “step up” if they want to be included in more nominations. However, it could be argued that it is not women’s responsibility to step up, but for the music industries to actively take a more encouraging and inclusive approach.
A step in the right direction, the Academy launched their Women in the Mix Pledge in 2019. Disappointingly however, none of the pledge takers worked with a female engineer in 2022 on a Billboard Hot 100 song. Only one had worked with a female producer.
What is the solution?
There are many things that the music industries can do to encourage gender parity in behind the scenes roles. Namely recruitment pledges, paid internship opportunities, and mentorships as a starting point.
The Youth Music NextGen Fund puts money directly in the pockets of underrepresented 18–25-year-old creatives. We reported last year that 100% of Youth Music NextGen Fund recipients agreed that the funding improved their confidence and self-belief, quality of work and non-industry skills. Crucially, they all felt that the funding had enabled them to make things happen on their own terms.
However, civil and children’s rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman, once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
To solve the perpetuating issue of women’s invisibility in the music industries, they need to be supported and given access to opportunities and learning from an early age.
Grassroots organisations hold the key to changing this.
DJ School UK is an organisation based in Leeds. Supported through the Youth Music Incubator Fund, it launched a girls-only hour at their DJ clubs as a response to two individual girls feeling underrepresented in classes.
“We had a long conversation with them about how it felt often being the only girl in the room, and what we learnt was that for many girls who did want to try it out, when they were the only girl in the room, especially at their first visit, they were less inclined to return,” Managing Director Jim Reiss told us.
“The biggest impact we have seen [from the girls-only hour] is that many of the girls who visit the girls club become much more confident, and that this means they are willing to join other sessions…This in turn means the gender balance across all our sessions has improved because we provided a safe space for just girls to feel comfortable when they were just beginning,” Jim added.
Thanks to this early stage encouragement and support, seven girls who attended DJ School UK have continued to DJ and make music, three are regularly gigging, and one tours the UK festival circuit, as well as playing internationally.
Another Youth Music Incubator Fund project, WIRED by Yorkshire Sound Women Network, supports and inspire girls, young women and people of minority genders to participate in music technology and to help influence attitudes and behaviours within the industry. “Our WIRED clubs offer participants practical experience of a wide range of different music tech areas including sound recording, mixing, DJing, coding, electronics, sound synthesis, sound engineering and using music production software such as Audacity, Logic and Ableton,” Development Manager Heidi Johnson told us.
One WIRED music leader observed that none of the participants seemed to be familiar with audio industry jobs before the session, but after, they could all mention at least five different roles. A number of girls voiced that they wanted to become either a game music designer or audio engineer.
“We think it’s really important for young people to get hands-on with equipment, so we create supportive spaces for girls and people of minority genders to take risks and explore music technology,” Heidi said.
Charlotte Brimner, co-founder of Dundee-based independent record label, Enough Records, set up songwriting camps for young women with investment from the Youth Music Incubator Fund. The camps directly addressed the issues female songwriters in Scotland faced, such as access to creative opportunities, safe spaces, and networking. As further testament to the real impact of these grassroots projects, Charlotte reported that 25% of camp participants have gone on to collaborate with each other again since.
Girls Rock London offers high-quality music programming for women and girls (cis and trans), non-binary people, trans men/boys, and people with other marginalised gendered experiences, with a specific focus on increasing access for people who face barriers to participation.
Responding directly to the gender imbalance in music, GRL designed a six-month programme for early-stage musicians to take the next steps towards musical independence. This sought to develop participants’ songwriting, production, performance and recording skills as well as build confidence and grow their networks.
“Making music accessible at an entry level and allows communities to fuel the creative scene. It allows those who may feel unwelcomed in the mainstream industry to make a space for themselves and others alike,” stated Nat Greener, founder of Tits Upon Tyne, a breast cancer awareness and women in music platform. “Supporting grassroots movements proves there is a demand for representation and equity at the core of the industry,” she continued.
However, as much as these organisations do to encourage and support women into behind the scenes roles, lasting change will only happen when the rest of the industry steps up.
“We don’t believe it should be the sole responsibility of charities to fund future diversification of British music,” Matt Griffiths asserted. “The industry benefits directly from the work we do, so we need to start to see major labels stepping up and taking the lead in investing too.”
Thanks to the National Lottery via Arts Council England and players of People’s Postcode Lottery for continuing to make Youth Music’s work possible.