Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it. Next time you’re out at The Phoenix, Smith’s, Transit, or anywhere for a live gig, take note of how many women you see on stage. There is a huge disparity between the genders in the music industry and Canberra is no exception. According to an informal census I did in January 2015, women make up only 16.6 percent of people making original music in Canberra. That means that only three musicians in twenty are women. For an activity that is taken up by boys and girls alike as children, this gender gap in the original music scene is stunning.
I grew up playing trombone in concert bands that had, from memory, a fairly equal gender ratio. That all changed when I got to jazz school, but I didn’t pay very close attention to it. Through jazz school, I made the connections that got me into playing gigs around Canberra. From one band to the next, I’ve never been short of gigs, and even though I’ve often found myself to be the minority in a band full of blokes, it never bothered me. After all, those blokes have become some of my best friends.
That changed one afternoon when Tony*, a local musician, asked me if I would be interested in joining a band called Glitoris. I said yes straight away. She hadn’t mentioned the ins and outs of the project at that point, but it didn’t matter to me, just the name alone is amazing. I’m not sure why Tony asked me, a bone player, to play in her punk band, but I jumped at the notion and ran. I can play a bit of guitar and bass and I was willing to practice the shit out of either to be in a band called Glitoris. When Tony fully explained what her vision for Glitoris was – an all female punk band performing naked and covered in glitter – I was all the more on board.
I ended up playing bass and Tony and I were joined by Kevin 007* on guitar. As we began jamming and putting together our set, I began to notice how much I enjoyed our rehearsals. Not just for the music we were playing, which I am happy to immodestly say fucking rocks, but because of the female companionship. I’d never experienced anything like it before. We could talk about our lives and feminism and periods and get mad about whatever shit our old white dude politicians had decided to say that week and we didn’t have to defend anything we said. Don’t get me wrong, in my other bands, I’d never felt that I couldn’t be myself, but spending time making music with women made me notice how much I had held back. And I don’t just mean being able to talk about my menstrual cycle.
It’s like this: without fail, if I bring up feminism, women in the music industry or point out anything sexist when I’m hanging out with male friends, I will come up against some kind of whataboutery, devil’s advocate, piss take, or teasing – even if it’s the friendliest kind (banter is the lifeblood of pub conversation after all). However, with Glitoris, we respected each other’s opinions, supported each other and for once in my life, I could actually talk about this stuff without having to prove that my experience was valid. I noticed that I have always had defence arguments ready for the topics that we were talking about, but with Glitoris, I didn’t need them.
Playing in Glitoris fuelled my feminism and got me thinking more and more about women in music. Why have I always been in the minority? Why are there so few women playing music, when at school, we were a fairly even bunch? What happened between Year 12 and uni that saw such a drop in the number of my female peers? And while we’re at it, just how much of a minority is it? Finding myself at a loose end one January afternoon, I decided to start counting. I went through every Canberra band I could find, counted up the number of men and women and found myself staring at 16.6 percent.
I’ve always been conscious of the gender disparity in music, but once I saw it in numbers, it became real. Since then, I haven’t stopped noticing. Every gig, every busker, every backing band on television. There are dudes everywhere. This is an actual problem. Young women need role models to aspire to and moreover, music as an art form is disadvantaged by a lack of diversity. If we want to live in an equal society, women’s voices (and instruments) need to be heard.
I wanted to know the cause the disparity in our music scene, so I decided to talk to some female musicians. I asked them how they became musicians, whether they’d ever encountered any issues as women in the scene and what reasons they could attribute to the lack of women in music. I ended up completing five interviews with six women: Alice Cottee, Erica Mallett, Sally Coleman, Bec Taylor, Julia Johnson and Alison Procter.
Alice is an accomplished singer songwriter and has been making music around Canberra for a number of years. She jumps between folk, punk and jazz and you can see her around town playing solo or with her groups No Hausfrau and Dollface. Erica and Sally form Coda Conduct, a hip hop duo originally based in Canberra who have been going from strength to strength, releasing their debut EP Butter Side Up in 2015. Bec Taylor is an accomplished singer, drummer and pianist who you might know from Fun Machine and Hashemoto. Julia Johnson is well known as a singer songwriter, previously performing with her group The Deep Sea Sirens, and can sometimes be seen performing with Prom. Alison is an experienced singer songwriter who makes up one half of The Cashews.
When we talked about whether they had ever experienced any problems as women in the music scene, most of the women I spoke to had some stories to tell. Alice felt that she’d never experienced any issues as a result of her gender and attributed that to having female role models as she was growing up. However, through my discussions with Alison, Julia, Sally, Erica and Bec, it became apparent that being a woman in the music scene does come with problems. Women in music are almost constantly in the minority, they often deal with the fallout of contradicting our society’s accepted roles for women, they work in environments that don’t always feel safe, they are underestimated or belittled by members of the music industry and the audience and they deal with the often unequal burdens of parenthood. Additionally, some women feel patronised rather than included by initiatives aimed at providing performance opportunities for women, such as women’s music nights. However, while these women said that these issues sometimes made it difficult to be a part of the music industry, none of them said that it had put them off performing. In fact, Sally pointed out that being the minority as a woman can work to her and Erica’s advantage, because it makes them stand out in a crowd.
Despite being able to point out the numerous faces of sexism in the music scene, none of us could really answer why we have such a gender disparity. Seeing as none of us had been discouraged to the point of giving up, we were reduced to speculating about the possibilities. There could be some differences between men and women that give men an edge in music. Whether biological or culturally created, these differences could make it easier for men to make the leap into performing original music. Or it could simply be that our homegrown scene is powered by the contribution of friends, and if all of those friends are male, it could be hard for a woman to penetrate the unwitting boys club that music at this level can be.
We don’t have any answers, or perhaps we have some, but I can’t say for certain why there is such a large gender gap in the Canberra music scene. Whatever the cause, I think awareness is one key to creating a more gender equal scene. Take notice. Be aware that there is a serious gender gap in music. Be aware that your behaviour as a punter, venue owner, sound tech, musician or promoter could contribute to widening or narrowing this gap. Be aware that women’s music nights might be one way of increasing the number of women on stage, but at the same time, know that not all women agree on their efficacy or want to be a part of them. Know that women may be less likely to seek out gigs on their own steam and may rely on the encouragement of others. If we all take notice and think about our behaviour towards women in music, we could make a change for the better.
One idea that cropped up during the interviews was the value of the support of other women. Sally and Erica spoke about the positive outcomes of women meeting and working together. Julia supported the idea of workshops just for girls to learn about playing music and what to expect at gigs. Providing a safe space for girls and women to take their first steps as musicians could be vital to having more women participate in the scene. So I’ve decided to start one. It’s called Launch Pad and it so far takes the form of a facebook group for female and genderqueer musicians to support, educate and mentor each other with the aim of working towards reaching greater gender equality and diversity in the Canberra music scene. It’s in its early stages but I would like to welcome any women or genderqueer people who are musicians or interested in becoming one to join. You can participate as much as you like: ask questions, vent frustrations, share music or just watch and listen.
I have chronicled this project from the beginning on my blog, Musicians. To read the full interviews, learn about women’s experiences as musicians in more detail and see some lovely pie charts, please check it out at sophieemmachapman.tumblr.com.
*Glitoris members use pseudonyms inspired by politicians that they definitely don’t think are cunts.
Sophie Chapman is a musician and writer with a degree in music education and a master’s in educational research. She has been making music in Canberra for a number of years, playing in bands such as The Andi and George Band, Dub Dub Goose, the Brass Knuckle Brass Band and Glitoris. Originally from Canberra, she is currently based in Glasgow. You can read more of her writing at sophieemmachapman.tumblr.com.