Misogynistic Musicians: Keeping Women Safe in Our Industry


Whether we're the "cute girl on the podium" causing a distraction or it’s just "the full flaunty" image we seem to portray... there are many hurdles women have to jump over in the bid for equality. Worryingly, many of these hurdles don't involve women fighting the patriarchy for the career we deserve. Instead, we're fighting to feel safe whilst we work.


This fortnight, I'm delving deep into the problems faced by women in music, especially the ones like us: freelancers still in the early years of a career. It's no secret that music has a rather dark and troubled past when it comes to the safety of girls and women. None of us will soon forget the awful revelations that came to light with a small number of music specialist secondary schools in 2013. Although these atrocities are carried out by a small handful of predators and not "all men", the majority of women have experienced sexual harassment at work and it's a problem that isn't going away. According to the Musicians Union's Safe Space campaign; 48% of musicians have experienced sexual harassment at work and 85% did not report it. Freelancers, with the unpredictable work schedule relying heavily on recommendations and reputation are 61% more at risk of being sexually harassed. So why with so much bad press, is the music industry not moving faster to learn from past mistakes? To find out more, I caught up with the MU's Head of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, John Shortell: "I think one of our main issues as an industry is that the way we work is quite unique. [As a musician with a portfolio career] you'll be going from job to job without really have a static workplace. With all of these little pockets of work, not necessarily with contracts, there isn't the kind of formal infrastructure in place to be able to say, I know if this happens, this is my disciplinary and grievance procedure. There's a real lack of accountability within the industry. The power imbalances are also huge in the music industry. If there's someone who is the head of a label, let's say, or someone who runs an orchestra or a conductor – someone in a position of power that could make or break your career, there's a massive power imbalance. If this person is dictating your behaviour by their behaviour, i.e. I'm going to do this and how you react will determine how our relationship is for the next x amount of time, it can be really tough to pull away from or report. And what are the consequences if you do? We generally don't hear about it. If there are consequences, quite often that person is silenced or moved on, they become the problem.”

With our industry this fragmented where do those of us without a fixed HR department turn?

MU Safe Space Scheme: The MU have created an online space where anyone, not just members, can share instances of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the music industry. Set up specifically in response to the #MeToo movement, Safe Space has received hundreds of reports since its launch. "48% of people surveyed experienced sexual harassment," John reiterates, "and overwhelmingly it's women. Again, I can't stress that enough. It's women who experience sexual harassment, and overwhelmingly the perpetrators are men. Yes, men experience it too but not on the same level as women, so that's always going to be our focus through this campaign. 85% of those people experience and don't report it. To me that was like, wow! I knew it was happening but I didn't know it was on that scale. That to me is the most concerning statistic. This is happening, and no one feels safe enough to report. It gives us a real feel for how important this space is."


A simple online app, takes you through a series of questions regarding your report. From there the MU will offer you advice on your rights, information about relevant support services, advice on your options and further steps in cases of bullying and discrimination. From my conversation with John, one thing he said really brought it all home: "I was working on a plan with someone who reported via Safe Space for what they could do if they felt unsafe in a situation– which is great- but I'm asking you to change your behaviour because of this man. I'm always conscious that we're asking women to change".

This idea that it's in our own hands to create a work environment where we're safe is becoming harder and harder for women and our allies to digest. We've constantly tried to bend and change ourselves to avoid comment, to keep our heads down, to avoid bringing attention to ourselves. Our appearance is a prime example of this. The quotes in my introduction were made publicly about two formidable female forces in music in the past decade. All too often when our concerts are reviewed, our choice of clothing, our hair, our gender become the focus not the music. "Women will spend their whole lives working incredibly hard on their craft. We spend hours in the practise room, hours in rehearsals and hours in mental preparation for a performance. Then when the concert finally comes, people focus on what you’re wearing.” Niki Moosavi founder of 97 ensemble: “If only we gave women the same praise for dressing differently the way we praise Harry Styles when he wears a skirt. Stop looking at us and start listening to us."

She's not alone in her frustration. One of the leading voices on this issue is the forward-thinking, all-welcoming, Her Ensemble. "I just don’t see why you have to wear different things because of your gender", founder Ellie Consta explains, "I feel like the dress code is restrictive for women: you can’t show your ankles, you can’t show your shoulders, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. It just plays into patriarchal stereotypes and diminishing women". Regardless of the feelings manifesting particularly in the younger generation of musicians, orchestral dress codes are taking a long time to change.


One orchestra that's taking the plunge and ditched the dress codes is London Chamber Orchestra encouraging their musicians to "reflect the culture you identify with and how you interpret the occasion for which you are performing". Although this doesn't directly reflect the gender issue, it's definitely welcoming a more diverse approach to concert dress, a look I hope more orchestra's will adapt.


"I'm always conscious that we're asking women to change".

- John Shortell

In order for women to stop feeling diminished in the workplace they need to be seen in positions of power, alongside our male counterparts. Women are constantly pushing to break the unyielding glass ceiling. Within this decade alone, we’ve had a significant number of female conductors appointed for the first time and Vienna Philharmonic finally appointed their first female double bass player into their ranks. But one place where we just can’t seem to get passed the tokenism is in the concert billings. 5% of classical music performed last year was composed by a woman. More staggering is the fact that’s our best percentage ever! So, what’s being done to change this?

To get a perspective on how conservatoires in the UK are bringing the conversation forward, I spoke to Dr. Diana Salazar, Director of Programmes at the Royal College of Music:


"For too long all-male programmes have been the norm in classical music. And historically the revered leaders in our field, whether composers, conductors, or scholars, have been predominantly male. It has simply been ‘the way it is’. Given how ingrained this position has become, it requires a complete change in mindset if we are to reach a truly equitable situation for women in classical music. In recent years the College has moved towards a more integrated, whole-institution approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. This is bringing together all areas of the College: artistic programming, curriculum, research, students and staff, to identify where the gaps in representation are and how we can collectively take action to address these gaps.”


And when it comes to their own students being the force of change?


“Our aim is for RCM graduates to go on to programme music by women in every one of their concert programmes, for them to recognise when there is inequity, and for them to have the confidence to call this out and promote positive change. For that to become the ‘norm’ in the classical music world would be a major step forward.”


In 2022, women in music shouldn’t be facing sexual harassment whilst trying to work. We shouldn’t be trying to fit in a box that no longer represents women in the workplace today. We should be performed, studied, and celebrated as much as the men we work beside. And what about these men we work beside? In truth, the majority of the men in our industry are huge allies. They are shocked when they hear about what we go through and want to do something about it. They’re who we need now more than ever. Whilst we push to call out sexist comments, mansplaining, inappropriate touching and all the other horrors we face in our day to day lives, we need you to help us if you see it.


Niki Moosavi puts it perfectly: “Let’s create working environments that are comfortable and safe for women to work in. If you realise your ensemble is all men so you decide to hire one woman for ‘diversity’, is your working environment comfortable for her? Are you letting misogynistic, ‘laddy’ comments slide? Are you willing to call out people on their misogyny, even if they are your employer?”


We need you standing by our sides demanding the change we so desperately need.


We’re working so hard, but we cannot do it alone.


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