Women in Music: Building a Strong Music Community for Gender Equality
Freelance writer and psychologist Amber Parkin dissects gender inequality in the music industry and how we can implement ways to empower women in music.
by Amber Parkin for Byta
Music has always been an integral part of our lives, and it has the power to bring people together, irrespective of their backgrounds. However, the music industry has been plagued by gender inequality for decades, and it remains a significant challenge today.
The representation of women and gender-expansive talent in the music industry remains very low in all European countries. According to Keychange, an EU organisation, women represent 20% or less of registered composers and songwriters. Within the business side of music, women’s representation in positions of power and decision-making remains below parity.
The numbers are even bleaker globally. A recent US study found that from 2012 to 2021, 12.7% of songwriters and 21.8% of artists were women, and behind the scenes, only 2.8% of producers were women. While the Grammys and other awards appear to ride a wave of feminist success, the statistics say otherwise. Stacy L. Smith, one of the studies’ authors, commented, “Despite industry activism and advocacy, there has been little change for women on the popular charts since 2012. Although the data reveal an increase for women of colour, these findings indicate [there] is more work to be done.”
Looking at gender equality as a whole, one of the United Nations’ (UN) sustainability goals is to ‘empower all women and girls’ by 2030. As it stands, the UN estimates at the current rate of progress, it will take another 286 years to reform legal frameworks to promote, enforce and monitor gender equality in public life. This statistic effectively renders women, girls and gender-nonconforming people virtually invisible.
Initiatives for gender equality
So, how do we overcome this invisibility? Many organisations and initiatives exist to solve gender equality in music worldwide, including educational programmes, networking opportunities, equality riders, and inclusive policies. There are brilliant ideas to address what happens in the recording studio (Soundgirls, Cactus City), support the development of artists (Saffron Music), genre-specific initiatives (Change the Conversation) and venues or even provide support for gig-goers (like the UN Women UK initiative “Safe Spaces Now” and Safe Gigs 4 Women).
What do all of these initiatives ladder up to? Ultimately, these all build more robust community networks and connections. For example, studies show people feel a moral obligation to help those they know, far more so than strangers or abstract others. It’s the effect of putting a “face to a name” — you’re more likely to want to help someone with a gig slot, introductions, spare gear or mastering advice.
What binds us together?
I worked at a music studio startup during the day for a few years while completing my master’s degree in psychology at night. Time after time, at work, I heard references to “our community” — but I never could put my finger on what it meant when used in the context of the brand. On reflection, I realise the artists who used our studios weren’t connected by a strong enough thread other than being organised around the attendance at a physical location.
Does my dentist have a community because we all go to the same place for hygienist appointments? I’d argue no. So, what binds us, then?
This question has interested me in what makes a community, particularly with an intersectional approach. Toby Lowe, a Professor of Public Management at the Centre for Public Impact, articulates the idea succinctly: “A community is a group of people who share an identity-forming narrative.”
It means a group of people who share a story that is so important to them that it defines an aspect of who they are. In the context of music, people see the world through the lens of shared experiences and creative output.
Criteria for a strong community
What are the criteria for a community? According to clinical and community psychologist David McMillan, there are four elements: membership, influence, reinforcement and a shared emotional connection.
These elements all contribute to the strength of a community. The first, membership, refers to belonging and personal connection among group members.
The second, influence, means that individuals matter to the group and can make a positive difference. The third element is reinforcement, which relates to the group’s ability to meet the needs of its members. Finally, you need a shared emotional connection built on experiences, history, and a sense of togetherness.
A strong community can bring people together to meet others’ needs while they meet their own. A more diverse and inclusive music industry could lead to more innovation and opportunities for everyone involved. Not to mention better music.
A strong community starts with safety
In music, embracing these elements can foster a supportive and inclusive environment — particularly when we recognise that within the ‘industry’ or even ‘women in music’, there are multiple grounds of identity. I’m adding psychological and physical safety to the criteria for community, too. It would be completely amiss to ignore the role these play in the success of women.
Last year, the UK government launched an inquiry into Misogyny in Music. The inquiry was met with many submissions of how attitudes have filtered through society, impacting the treatment of women and girls in music. It’s not just specific genres of music that are affected either. One anonymous piece of evidence described a negative experience in “classical choirs – both within Oxford University and in external professional choirs.” So much for blaming rap lyrics, then, as issues are equally prevalent throughout the popular music cultures of the working classes, folk, country and more.
While this piece of work is specific to the UK, there is no doubt that women in different regions and cultures face other similar systemic challenges in building productive, positive communities — due to societal beliefs, political or religious oppression or economic difficulties.
Interestingly, much of the evidence in the UK inquiry cited the existence of many grassroots, volunteer-led initiatives and groups. We know, too, that there are vast numbers of these equality projects worldwide, such as Arte Sonica Amplificada in Brazil or Women About Sound in New Zealand. There is the potential to harness network effects, with many budding organisations coming together for the greater good.
The problem, perhaps, is the lack of industry support — where women’s representation in positions of power and decision-making remains below parity — and funding from various governments.
However, we must maintain an inherently optimistic attitude to tackle significant challenges like gender equality. Music in itself is optimistic, we create because we hope it will express our feelings and maybe even connect. An optimistic community believes in progress and the possibility of finding solutions, driving creativity, persistence, and shared energy throughout the problem-solving process. Approaching problems with this perspective empowers us to navigate even the most difficult situations. Plus, it’s much more fun when we work together.
A unified music community to address gender equality will not happen overnight, but it is necessary we continue. I encourage everyone to actively participate in and support initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion in the industry — or step up and create the change we want to see in the world.
Amber Parkin is a freelance writer and psychologist. She’s worked in the music industry for several years, developing the artist experience for a global network of rehearsal studios. She writes at amberparkin.substack.com