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Andrea Keller on Gender Equality: Is the Music Industry at a “Tipping Point”?

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Written by Rose Bassett, Ella Clair and Jake Amy

Photo: Hayley Miro Browne

While speaking to improvising pianist and composer Andrea Keller last week, I asked for her thoughts on gender inequality within the so-called Australian music industry. In particular, I was interested in how she, one of the world’s most incredible pianists, has seen it expressed throughout her diverse career. Within her response, Andrea mentioned a “tipping point” - a moment in time where gender equality begins to ground itself in a more stable and established position within our music industry. 2020 could, in my view, be the “tipping point” year. Alongside the very real and varied challenges this year has presented, we can reflect on the persistence of gender inequalities, expressing themselves through the actions and decisions of individuals, institutions and organisations alike. COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of our music industry. Can we rebuild them, only this time, with a newer and more inclusive design?

Photo: Hayley Miro Browne

Why are gender and cultural inequalities such persistent themes within our music industry? 

The themes of gender and cultural inequality infiltrate so much of society and our lives, so of course they can be found in our music scene too. As to the reasons for their persistence, I believe these themes remain entrenched in our community because there is still apprehension with those who aren’t willing to truly recognise and acknowledge misguided ways of thinking. We can defend our positions without really listening to others, with humility, and with the sole intention to understand, but in my view, this is the only way forward. 

As a music community, we’re challenging our behaviours and ways of thinking, and making positive motions towards identifying and changing the defective systems we’ve been reliant on for too long. Although I have mixed feelings about quotas, making change begins with consciousness. As with most things, we have to train our intuition to respond in new ways, therefore we are in somewhat of a “practise” phase now, as we educate ourselves and others through it.

While we’re practising together, my hope is that we never again approach a female/gender nonconforming/marginalised musician for a gig/project/teaching position with the words “we really need a woman/we’re doing a program featuring women/we want to make sure we have female representation”.

If you are writing that email/having that conversation and you go to write/say something along those lines, please stop yourself. Without fail, this feels like a major slap in the face, diminishing merit and serving no purpose other than to devalue, albeit unintentionally.

We’ve had, and do have, visionaries in our community; women and men who lead by example with their graceful actions, who provide and create opportunities to celebrate the diversity of our community. I’m particularly grateful that we have people like Zoe Hauptman, Chelsea Wilson, Claire Cross, Sonja Horbelt, and more, working in positions of leadership in our scene. With more and more visionaries at the helm, my hope is that we’ll have trained our collective intuition enough, so we may get closer to tipping the gender and cultural imbalance.

Within the jazz scene it could be said that there has been a “code of silence” around issues of gender and diversity. Have you experienced this, and if so, how?

The jazz scene is a male-dominated industry where survival relies on how you’re connected and who you’re connected to. This has traditionally led to women often being overlooked. You can look at many areas of the industry to see this clearly in action. Looking at the permanent staffing at four institutions that offer the study of Jazz and Improvisation (or equivalent) Bachelor of Music performance degrees in Melbourne, for instance, gives a snapshot of gender and diversity inequality. Across the four degrees that employ approximately 21 current permanent staff, only four are women, with half of the institutions having all-male permanent staff teams. The first of the current female staff appointments occurred in mid-2017, however, in my view, it’s not the case that there weren’t appropriately qualified or work-ready females pre-2017. 

We silence the uncomfortable truth, but we need to look at this honestly, without getting defensive, and acknowledge it in full light, if we’re to begin to dismantle our archaic constructs.

Recently, Australian jazz musician and educator James Morrison wrote a character reference for a student who admitted to indecent assault. What do you think about this?

I cannot comment on the James Morrison Academy situation. 

However, the scenario described is far from unique in the music industry and broader society; perpetrators being protected (by connection, power and/or wealth) and victims made voiceless. This sends a really disturbing message to those (particularly marginalised) members of our community who may find themselves in need – that when push comes to shove, the system will not protect them. This includes those who should have their duty of care central to their manifesto. Misaligned duty of care feels like the ultimate betrayal.

Examples of gross misdirected compassion perplex me, and these are not choices I would make. The motivation is beyond my comprehension, especially from those in positions of leadership and power. To bias one’s compassion so singularly in one direction, and with what is often reported to be total abandonment of those most vulnerable. 

There is no situation or reason that makes disrespectful behaviour/violence against human beings acceptable. If we want to break the cycle, we need to seriously address our compassion-bias. All the parties involved in a situation such as this require guidance, counselling, mentoring, training, education, and more.

In my view, we need to be better at hearing the experiences of others. If we’re only able to understand others through comparisons with our own lives, we run the risk of minimising their consequences by the limits of our own emotional intelligence and experiences. We should listen to understand, not to answer, not to form an opinion, but just listen to understand. 

Photo: Natasha Blankfield

Have you experienced sexism within the music industry and, if so, in what ways?

I read an interview with an American jazz musician who expressed that at the start of each gig she felt as though there was an assumption that she couldn’t play, so she had to work extra hard to convince audiences of her legitimacy. She articulated something I’d always sensed but had never articulated for myself – it was somewhat consoling to put a label on it, and to know that it’s a shared experience. 

The oppressing lack of belief, the feeling of always starting on the back foot, speculations that you’ve only been selected or awarded an opportunity because you’re a woman and there’s a box to tick... is tough to front up to every day. Fortunately, in my experience, I’ve been surrounded by enough supportive and encouraging musicians and people in the industry to help me stay on course. Without mentors, role models, and multiple avenues for musical pursuit, my story may well be different. 

R: Have you found that women too can perpetuate unfair standards against one another in similar or different ways to men? 

I entered motherhood at the same time that I began emerging as a musician on the jazz scene. Because of the synchronicity of both events, I often attribute motherhood as the main root of biased attitudes towards me. I don’t believe these attitudes are born from disrespect or malice; I see them coming from misunderstanding. The unfair standards I’ve experienced from women have generally involved me missing out on work because I have three children and there is an assumption that my primary role is to care for them. Whereas, in reality, my role is as much to provide financial security for them as it is to care for them. My husband, who is also a musician and is also responsible for the care of our children, does not get subjected to the same treatment. These attitudes can come from women with or without children, but when they are mothers themselves, it does make me wonder who’s got my back.

These experiences teach me how important it is to communicate with people about what the reality is, and to act compassionately, giving them the power to decide what is or is not possible for them, it shouldn’t be left up to my assumptions. 

What was your experience of music education as an instrumentalist? 

As a child starting out in music, I was learning in the classical world, which doesn’t have the exaggerated gender imbalance we see in jazz. In my early teenage years, when I got interested in jazz, the gender imbalance was instantly noticeable, but it didn’t deter me. I was shy and lacked confidence, and I envied the gusto with which the boys approached improvisation, but I stuck with it. I loved the music and there were enough people encouraging me. I was really fortunate as I had great teachers and fellow students. Trumpeter Phil Slater was in the first jazz band I ever played in. Even as a teenager, he was incredibly supportive, and his focus was contagious! I did find myself in a few situations that were negative, but because I had multiple avenues of musical activity going on, I was able to abandon the negative ones and just stuck with the positive ones. 

Studying my undergraduate degree, at what is now the Jazz and Improvisation department at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, was overall a positive experience. Brian Brown, who established the course, was a visionary man, and his all-inclusive philosophy and unbiased approach reverberated through the staff and students. Sue Johnson was on permanent staff at the time, and her encouragement and nurturing played an enormous part in keeping me on my path.

Still, I was one of only two female instrumentalists in my year, along with two female singers, the remaining 35 students were male.

That was back in the mid-nineties. I had assumed that things would look vastly different 25 years on, in terms of gender equity, but sadly they don’t to me.

R: Now, as an educator yourself, do you feel that this education system has become more equal regarding gender? Why or why not? 

I don’t have answers here. Dishearteningly, any shift towards gender equality in the education system has been barely perceptible. There is hope that the inclusion of women on staff in institutions, and the establishment of Take Note, Girls Do Jazz, and other equivalent programs in the major cities around Australia will help propel us towards a tipping point. I hope to see it turn around in my lifetime. 

There are lots of things we’re doing right and there’s no question that we must continue to dedicate our efforts towards positive change. 

Keep up to date with Andrea here


We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

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