We’re Still Talking About Women in Music

I remember being more mortified than anything else. Not angry or hurt. I always doubted myself when it came to performing with my instrument.

I’d really wanted to join the pep band in high school. I did my senior year, thinking that I was probably the worst musician…poor sight reading skills, and less experience playing. But I still loved it.

“Where’s your drummer?” The school administrator stared at us as we prepared to play at the basketball game.

I looked around, to and fro. Seriously? I am, you know, sitting on the drum throne with a pair of Vic Firth 5B sticks in hand. I’m not just sitting here because it’s comfy. So I timidly raised my hand. The administrator looked embarrassed, mumbled something as if he hadn’t seen me (I’m 5’4″, but I’m not Borrower-Small) and walked away.

I still meet people who don't know that Karen Carpenter was a very gifted drummer. However, a lot of people stay fixated on her illness. That's another point altogether.

I still meet people who don’t know that Karen Carpenter was a very gifted drummer. However, a lot of people stay fixated on her illness. That’s another point altogether.

In that moment, sitting there and feeling invisible, I panicked that maybe I didn’t present myself in a way that said I knew what I was doing. Maybe I needed to be more assertive. Maybe I was busy talking to our bassist, and the school administrator thought I was just hanging out. I tried my darndest to push the thought that he had dismissed me because he didn’t expect a female to the back of my head. It still punctured my confidence.

There are many instances when I’ve gone to do something with my drums and, yet, the person I am interacting with assumes I am not the drummer. When my dad wanted to get me a new pair of sticks for my birthday and, after purchasing them, handed them to me, the Guitar Center employee blurted his surprise that the sticks were not my dad’s. The same employee who then tried to sell me a hot pink cheetah print stick bag. Or the guy I ran into when I was loading my set in at a gig, who walked by me and asked me, critically, “Do you actually play those things?”. No, sir, it’s fun to carry a drum set through a crowded city and narrow bar doorways, just for fun I say! Or the man who asked me what I was doing with a drum key on my belt loop. Not because it’s fashionable, dude. Because a) it’s not and b) I had to tune a drum set before practice.

I always give people the benefit of the doubt, though. And that’s why I have been mulling this topic over in my head for quite some time, and delayed writing about it.

Because sometimes I fear that, by isolating musicians by gender, we end up…well, isolating ourselves. If I were to compare myself to others, musically, I wouldn’t compare myself to only females. So, why would I present myself this way?

At the same time, I see why we’re still talking about women in music. Because, outside of pop especially, there is still some leverage to be had. And I don’t just mean in regards to sexist men, or ‘old fashioned’ women. I’m not just talking about the guy who wrote a letter to the guitar magazine my sister was reading, to complain about their list of ‘best guitarists’, because–in his words–you ‘have to have balls’ to really play. Rude, a lie, and just plain arrogant, is what that comment was.

This blog covers music and audio because I find the two to be so closely entwined, and most audio production is, obviously, a major factor in the music industry.

In college, I never thought about a male to female ratio in my classes–at first. Then, one day, we had a substitute for our sound design professor. Before starting the lesson she exclaimed, “I have never seen so many women in this course!” and beamed at all of us.

What? I turned around. I always sat in the front row, so maybe I missed something, someone. Nope. Still only two of us. This surely couldn’t be a grand total.

If you don't know Clara Schumann...look her up right now!

If you don’t know Clara Schumann…look her up right now!

I started to pay attention after that. Music Production and Engineering course. Counting in the lecture hall…one or two other girls. Acoustics? Same. Drum lab? Me, myself, and I. Drum studies? Hi, how are you, self? Sound As Fine Art? Yep…nope.

I loved those classes. I had great classmates and professors. And I feel like I know a ton of other women who are in these fields! Sure, the ratio is tilted.

I have to ask myself, do I try too hard not to notice the gender gap for fear of the issue I mentioned before: isolation?

I started working as a journalist before I graduated, and have bumped around to a few places due to layoffs. One place in particular was predominantly male. Ok, all male. When I was being shown around on my first day by my boss, who was awesome, I heard a voice as I left one end of the office. “A woman!”. When I left that company I had to sign a release saying that I couldn’t cry ‘discrimination’ for being the only female. I knew that I wouldn’t, because it was never the case, but I was still surprised.

Every year, ELLE produces a Women in Music issue. I really do think that they’ve been better each year-more diverse, less fashion-centric.

Last year I did my own Women in Music, to sort of add on to their list. I’d love to see more production and business profiles included as well.

I was hesitant even to do those posts. Sometimes it just seems plain weird. We don’t have Men in Music specials, Male Authors groups, special camps for boys who want to play rock music. So, what gives?

Did you know that Madonna was originally a drummer?

Did you know that Madonna was originally a drummer?

There are a ton of women I know who hold jobs that were male dominated back in the day. Keep in mind that the Nineteenth Amendment isn’t even 100 years old; the first woman to be accepted into medical school in the United States was accepted by accident (thought to be a joke) less than two hundred years ago; the “first woman of finance”, Muriel Siebert, was in the late 1960s; the first female conductor of the Met Opera wasn’t even thirty years ago; and the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars was only three years ago. According to Catalyst.Org, 1978 was “the first year that at least 50% of all women over the age of 16 participated in the labor force”.  I suppose many of the fields I am thinking of are still male dominated, I just try hard to look at each person by their work, and not their gender.

It can still be disheartening when sitting back to look at statistics. No matter how optimistic I am, and how much I try not to be critical of comments such as the ones I mentioned earlier in this post, I can’t turn a blind eye to this discussion. I’ve heard the daughter of a businessman say that he didn’t want to hire young women, because he didn’t want to have to deal with maternity leave. Even the discussion on equal pay is…well, it’s still a discussion. How long will the discussion be “Women in Music”, rather than notable musicians of the year, etc, discarding male or female identity?

What about you? Guys, what do you think? Is this still an issue? Have you been on the other side of this situation, and what do you think? Girls, have you ever felt isolated being a woman in your field, or do you feel more isolated when it is pointed out? Do you think it’s a problem at all?


13 thoughts on “We’re Still Talking About Women in Music

  1. As a music teacher, I think it is, and it starts with how we view certain instruments in society. It’s a cultural thing to say “Well boys don’t play flute.” It stems from the examples we give children in books, pictures, and real life examples of who is out there playing the music. We create a stigma that, if a child does decide to venture out into an instrument that is not “usual” to his or her gender, that child might eventually leave the instrument because it isn’t “cool” or “right.” I think this problem goes a long way back.
    In the same sense, yes- the more we highlight “women in music”, rather than just musicians in general, the more barriers we create. I hope someday those gaps are closed so we don’t have to highlight great musicianship by what gender the musician is!

  2. I starting playing alto sax in the 4th grade in band. A few years later I was carrying my case with me on the way out of school and a girl in my class said she thought I was very brave to play a boy’s instrument. I had never thought about it like that, I just liked it because Snoopy plays sax and I grew up with “Some Like It Hot”.

  3. Wow, I never thought of it like that, either! Love “Some Like It Hot”. I guess, with both you and Sarah’s comments, society does still associate certain genders with certain instruments. Even other hobbies…I have a relative who gets really embarrassed when anyone brings up that he used to do ballet.

    I appreciate your feedback!

  4. Love your article! I just turned 40 and took drums up as a hobby about 3 years ago. I don’t gig; just take lessons and occasionally jam…however, I was very dismayed that something even as simple as shopping for drum equipment has disheartening, sexist moments. I cannot tell you the number of times I was asked if I was buying gear for my boyfriend. Drum forums are a poop-storm of sexism as well. I personally love all girl bands (yep, the whole riot grrrl thing was going on when I was in uni), female-centric drum magazines like Tom Tom, and the notion of rock camp for girls. However, I completely get other people’s frustration of ‘just wanting to be seen as a musician’ and not be equated as a ‘female’ novelty. It is a hard balance; celebrate and encourage women in music or segregate ourselves… Anyway, great article!

    1. Thank you so much, Geri! I agree with many of your sentiments, and have worked with Tom Tom as well. We are hoping to collaborate a bit more.
      Thank you again for reading, and I’m glad you are drumming 🙂

  5. (I just saw your article via its being highlighted on Pyragraph.) I’m an old-school feminist (turned 60 at the winter solstice), and the problem of finding balance is classic. I think it depends on the passing of time. There’s a tipping point where the participation of any group in a field where they were uncommon or even deliberately excluded becomes customary, and so continuing to single them out to celebrate them does become counter-productive. Just where that tipping point occurs, that’s what’s tricky to figure out. These days, nobody does special articles or events about female physicians. But every February ignites a debate in the African-American community over Black History Month.

  6. This reminds me of the first day I walked into guitar seminar at music school with the only other female classical guitar major, and one of the guys exclaimed, “Geez, how many girls ARE there in this class!?” That was back in 1978. Yes, it’s crazy that all this is still even a subject for discussion. I do think there’s been some positive movement, though. My daughter is a multi-instrumentalist, and when she used to play percussion in her dad’s band, nobody raised an eyebrow, even though she was not only female but very young and physically small. (Maybe drum set would have been different.) Also, in our local belly dance community, there’s a 60-ish couple where the husband dances and the wife accompanies him on doumbek.

    Anyway, if your drumming is as clear and strong as your writing, you must sound great. Glad to know you’re out there.

    1. Hi Elene,
      Thank you so much for the thoughts, feedback, and compliments! The stories you cite are so interesting…I am actually glad to hear your belly dancing story, because I recently heard someone mocking the idea of male belly dancers. That didn’t sit well with me, because I have known a good deal of make ballet dancers who have then been made to feel ashamed of their art. I don’t think we should tell someone what type of dance they can or cannot do based on being male or female.
      The whole idea of balance and gender was brought up to me again with this story I did for Blast Magazine (http://laparadiddle.com/2013/11/14/womens-magazines-and-female-journos/), where I initially hadn’t thought as much about the inequality in journalism because I know so many talented writers. Diving into stats and stories was discouraging, but that is why these discussions are so great!

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