I wrote recently about a symposium I attended at Berklee Valencia on Women Conductors and their lack of opportunity in the classical music world. Berklee Valencia, through Émilien Moyon, Director of the Global Music Industries Program, followed up with an analogous discussion and debate, but this time focused on the Pop world. The symposium on March 22 attracted a great deal of interest not just for the subject matter but also for the interest created by an expert panel including Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyoncé’s publicist; music manager and producer Patricia Abdelnour ‘97; Salomé Límon, the Latin Grammy nominated music producer and sound engineer; and two “token males” from the faculty, Program Director for Music Production, Technology, and Innovation Pablo Munguia and Artistic Director Alf Olofsson. They called the symposium “Shifting the Conversation: Towards Balance in Music” and it was organized in association with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Fund and facilitated by Paloma Durán, Director of the UN Sustainability Development Goals Fund. This collaboration between Berklee and UNSDGF will lead to a research paper that will be published this summer.
This was a pretty impressive line up and it took no time at all for the stats to tell the tales of inequity followed by the personal stories of sexism in the industry. Consider these for instance:
In the UK alone women comprise 60% of all interns and 59% of entry-level positions but only 30% of senior executive positions, according to The Guardian.
Women in the Pop industry in the States earn 20% less than their white male colleagues with African Americans and Latino women much less than that.
PRS professional songwriters and composers in the UK comprise just 16% of their total membership.
31% of performers are female.
32% of bands comprise female performers.
5% of audio engineers are female.
And a staggering 78% of women experience sexism in the workplace.
It is a male dominated industry where diversity and inclusion are still distant goals requiring urgent attention to combat sexual bias and prejudice. But, if the accepted normalized behavior is misogyny and sexism how can the industry promote a healthier and more supportive working environment? And in the meantime how much talent and creativity is the industry losing by excluding women from the senior roles?.
At the Berklee Symposium, Yvette Noel-Schure was very targeted in her criticism and personal anecdotes. She also asked some of the most pertinent questions about how women see their professional lives, and where they see their place in the hierarchy of authority and power. She felt that the starting point should be recognizing that there is a problem and consciously examining attitudes and behaviors, which could lead to more equal opportunities.
Other panelists felt that the advertising world was very much to blame in objectifying women and turning them into “Princesses.” As a result women, were seen and promoted not as equal counterparts in a professional world but as adjuncts with grudgingly acknowledged talents. Such discouragement leads to women feeling a lack of confidence and ambition as shown in job applications and interviews where criteria for selection were perceived as major obstacles. This situation is comparable to the problem in the Tech and Science worlds where employment is considered not a “girl thing” and schools steer women to “softer” jobs. Not surprisingly, this results in a lack of women executives in Silicon Valley, with only 5% at the present.
Sexual assumptions and attitudes on the part of both men and women only perpetuate the situation. Consider the illustrative story Yvette related about an interview she conducted for an assistant position during her tenure at Sony Records. The last candidate was a beautiful blonde who, probably assuming a male executive, dressed to kill with the shortest of short skirts and an open cleavage. As she sat down to be interviewed, it became apparent that this young applicant was having major difficulties with her outfit and she was clearly distressed. Yvette provided her with a shawl she kept in her office, which managed to cover her embarrassment. She also offered words of advice: “You don’t have to be a sex goddess to get a job. All you have to be is balanced in your own abilities and your sexuality.”
Throughout the symposium, the question of pregnancy and its career consequences was raised several times. Panelists expressed the concern that pregnancy could imperil one’s job. Salomé Límon told of being interviewed by a potential boss who demanded that she inform him of her plans to start a family so that this could be coordinated within the business plan of the company. On the other hand, President Obama’s White House, cited by Patricia Abdelnour, former cultural attaché of Venezuela, offered a positive example. One of the assistants announced her pregnancy to the Chief of Staff with the expectation that she would have to resign as she would not be able to commit to the hours necessary for the job. Instead, she found that the Administration was more than open to “making it work and being flexible” not just to help the worker but to keep excellent talent as well.
So what are the solutions to urgent and unresolved problems that would create equality and release a major surge in talent and its development across the Pop industry and beyond?
The panel talked about recognizing and acknowledging the contribution women can make to a highly engaged, effective and skillful executive team. Besides generating creative ideas and strategies in their own right, they can also provide checks and balances on sexist assumptions and attitudes. The advertising world would certainly change dramatically as a result of this.
Patricia suggested companies provide equal opportunities for entry level positions through paid internships (unpaid internships are not affordable for people with no resources).
Other solutions included the implementation of workplace regulations and training to curb inappropriate behavior, so sexist comments, sexual abuse of women, glass ceiling limitations on career development, and wage inequality are no longer accepted or condoned.
A further area needing a cultural shift was that of promoting the family and the family nucleus so that being a working mother is acceptable and accommodated as a matter of course. Patricia observed that the work environment has not adapted to the new reality of family models in which both women and men have parental responsibilities and need some flexibility.
Encouraging the role of the supportive partner would increase the family friendliness of companies while assuring the predictability of work delivery, retention of talented employees, and the release of those employees’ talent and energy.
But we are still a long way away from this type of thinking. When Yvette announced the news of her third baby at work she felt in danger of losing her job or status. This in turn made her shorten her maternity leave, which meant she returned to work too soon. She knew instantly that she should have focused on the new child but the demands and expectations of work were dominant. Recalling the example of her “feminist” grandfather who believed wholeheartedly in the power of women, she was encouraged to examine her relationship with her husband and renegotiate the responsibilities of parenting.
Her situation reminded me of the symposium on Women Conductors where the argument was about normalizing what should be a recognized and accepted part of our lives. Having women recognized in the workplace as equals in talent, responsibilities, pay, and creativity should be normalized. So, too, should be the recognition and accommodation of family life—not only for women but also their supportive partners. Sadly, we are still not very good at this in the Creative Industries or really as a society.
At the end of the symposium Yvette said that the idea of finding balance was a myth and similar to seeking perfection. But we can certainly endeavor to improve the current state of affairs. Let us hope that this symposium was a small step in a fascinating journey taking us to a more modern and inclusive world.