Maria-Hélèna Pacelli

Asking Women* About Sexism in the Music Industry

This originally appeared in Modern Songstress.


What I learned when asking women about their experiences with sexism in the music industry.

As a feminist singer-songwriter I often find myself at odds, having to choose my battles between confronting sexist experiences and building relationships that would allow me to move my career forward.

I’ve worked with some wonderful men, but I have also found myself not taken seriously by men, or feeling out of place performing in a bar full of older white men, feeling myself sexualized when that is not my intent.

As I wondered about these experiences, I felt fairly certain I was not alone in this. In fact, according to an article published by Lizzy Goodman “systemic misogyny has long been an open secret” within the music industry.

Well-known artist like Bjork have spoken out about sexism and professional engineers like Stacie Huckeba have commented on their experiences working with men behind the scenes for decades. Let alone the thousands of documented stories I’ve found online during my research.

But it occurred to me that aside from one or two offhand comments with women that I know and trust within my local scene, as an artist who has released her first album independently and a feminist with a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies, I’d actually had very few conversations with women about this issue.

Before writing this piece, I felt the need to ask other women about their experiences, to hear some real stories and connect my own experience with those stories.

Fortunately, I am well surrounded by female-identifying folk who are singer-songwriters, performers, DJ’s, promoters, sound engineers and music educators. I decided to ask around and sent some questions to a number of women that I know across different sectors of the industry.

Disclaimer: While this is by no means any type of scientific study, it did allow me to hear some of my own experiences reflected back to me, be reminded of a few important points, and learn a few things as well that I think needs to be acknowledged more broadly on a regular basis.


Rape culture is still a problem

It’s sad but not surprising that women experience the same variety of mansplaining, victim-blaming, sexist bullying or grabbing and groping at concerts as they do in other spaces – one of the most common themes that affect women’s careers in music is rape culture as a whole.

From sexualisation of female-identified bodies to sexual violence and abuse that forces women to change scenes or career paths or otherwise sacrifice their careers to isolate themselves from their abusers, it is obvious that the music industry has a problem with sexual assault and rape culture.


Men have a responsibility

There are many women who speak out about sexism in the music industry or in society in general, but this is risky for women as they face sexist bullying and can expose themselves to being labelled as “angry feminists” for advocating for a shared piece of the pie.

The bigger issue with this is that this backlash demonstrates that men aren’t stepping up either. While there are some examples of male artists like Propaghandi addressing major issues like sexual assault and safer spaces within the music industry (seriously a great read), these are sadly rare.


Why it’s so difficult to speak out…

Revealing experiences with sexism is risky for female-identified folks in the music scene, from the backlash and bullying to stark and horrifying examples like Kesha who was forced to continue working with her abuser. There are countless stories about women in the music industry speaking out and being further victimized.

As Catherine Strong writes in her piece in The Conversation:

“This change is driven by feminist activism in the industry as well as by individual women brave enough to speak up about what has happened to them. There exists a long history of women musicians speaking out against sexism (see, for instance, women punks or Riot Grrrl), although lasting, widespread change has proved elusive.”

There are many examples of women calling out out sexism in the music industry and the more we do this, the more we become the norm, and make systemic misogyny unacceptable.

So although my little survey isn’t a scientific study, it’s no surprise that what I heard in this small sample of shared stories seems to line up with what feminists know to be the experiences of most women living in a patriarchal society.

However, the best part about asking these questions was having women reflect back to me that answering these questions brought them to think about the sexism they had experienced in musical settings.

While many of us struggle silently with this, it is clear that there are some shared experiences here and that by talking about them more openly with each other, women all over the music industry can be stronger by supporting and empowering one another.

 *The use of the term women is intended to refer to any persons identifying as women and can include non binary and trans women, female-identified folk as well as cisgendered women.

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