Grace Robinson: What Is There To Lose?

Updated: Sep 9

Written by Grace Robinson with contributions from Kali Shanthi

Photo: Renee Kypriotis

Our Melbourne music industry frequently revels in its progressive nature, proudly brandishing its perception of diversity and inclusion. Despite these claims to diversity, women are still combatting the notable gender disparities prevalent in all sectors of our music industry and broader society.


In 2017, a report published by the University of Sydney found female-identifying musicians to be severely disadvantaged across the board in the Australian music industry. Female representation on Victorian industry boards sat at a meagre 38%. Of the 100 most-played songs on Australian radio stations, a mere 21% featured women, and only 21.7% of APRA writers identify as female. As of last year, for every dollar a male musician earns, a female musician earns 12 cents less.


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Unfortunately, inequality is structurally embedded within the music scene, and operates with intersectionality, as it does in our broader society. BIPOC women, women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQI+ community are almost completely absent in key industry roles. Despite this, prominent organisations enjoy the benefits of their tokenistic and superficial allyship with marginalised communities. But if our marginalised communities do not see themselves represented among the influential “leaders of the industry”, why are we surprised when there are astonishing disparities in our line ups, tertiary institutions and industry roles?


However, since this report was published in 2017 – there’s been numerous female-centric initiatives, workshops and programs established in Australia to bring women into focus. Falls Festival committed to a 50% female representation on their 2018/2019 line up compared to the bleak 31% the previous year. This year we saw Billie Eilish take out the top position in the Hottest 100, the first solo female artist to win the title. Whilst these positive developments within Australia’s popular music scene are notable, unfortunately we haven’t seen these same advancements within our ever-evolving jazz and neo-soul industries. 


Unfortunately, the gender disparity in jazz and soul cannot be credited to the lack of women in the scene. There is no shortage of impressive, innovative and hardworking female identifying musicians in our communities - Ngaiire, Andrea Keller, Nai Palm, Kaiit, Gian Slater and Allysha Joy being the tip of the iceberg. The perspectives and behaviours that drive inequality are deeply ingrained within this industry, with progress largely at a standstill. Therefore, it is evident that this problem is not perpetuated by a lack of powerful and talented women, but instead the lack of accountability and proactive measures taken by powerful and talented men. 



To create meaningful change, these problems need to be addressed at the earliest stages of development, starting in our educational systems


I was fourteen when I first encountered misogyny and gender inequality in the music industry. I brushed off these encounters as insignificant, thinking it’s just another demeaning and dismissive comment from a male sound engineer, booker or band member. However, it is increasingly apparent that in my formative years as a young female musician, these comments were pivotal in shaping my perspectives and behaviours within the industry. This being said - I am lucky that I was always a confident and self-assured teenager. I was valued and supported by my high school music program, and I was assured in my musical abilities. But when I began tertiary study in jazz and improvisation, I was confronted by the weight of gender inequality all around me.

On the first day of university, I quickly realised that I was the only female in the majority of my classes. I was one of four female vocalists accepted – and one of eight females in the course in total. I had never encountered such a dramatic and notable gender disparity, and I was certainly not prepared for the substantial impact this marginalisation was bound to have on my confidence as a young musician. 


I noticed very quickly that the self doubt I was combatting was informed and even perpetuated by the attitudes of my male counterparts. My musical knowledge and abilities were underestimated by my lecturers and peers, my intelligence commonly diminished to just a pretty face, just a pretty voice. As a female musician, you’re taught to believe that the way you look is equally as important as the way you play. This was always in the back of my mind, so before weekly performance classes I would get up an hour earlier to ensure I looked my best. I felt I was sexualised on stage by my predominately male cohort, my appearance always under scrutiny and overshadowing my talent. The stigmatised stereotype of a female vocalist looking pretty at the front, with a bunch of blokes jamming out behind her, dominates the jazz scene and its accompanying institutions. This pressure of the male gaze exacerbates feelings of insecurity and self doubt. 

The musical intelligence of a singer is often overlooked and underestimated - I was constantly expected to prove my jazz credentials, my practice regime and my harmonic abilities to be considered equal in the eyes of my male counterparts. I responded to this dismissive attitude by engaging in my classes and practicing extensively, throwing myself into every aspect of the course. I asserted leadership roles within my ensembles and worked relentlessly alongside my male equivalents. However, this quickly manifested into a reputation of arrogance and bossiness; I began to be seen as a stereotypically overbearing and demanding woman. Speak up amongst your male colleagues and be labelled as overbearing and demanding, or stand in their shadows and remain underestimated for the rest of your career.  


This prompted me to reflect on how we can be proactive in creating educational environments that nurture, support and encourage our young women. Why do our music education programs consistently underrepresent women? How can we be proactive in ending these cycles that plague our white-washed, male dominated music industry, and instead create safe and inclusive spaces for our marginalised communities? Unfortunately, I haven't found the fix-all solution. However, my personal struggles against the discriminative cultures that pervade these biased educational institutions have taught me a lot. Informed by conversations with empowering women, I have identified and established some proactive measures that will work to disempower and deconstruct oppressive frameworks, creating a safer educational environment in which all students can thrive. 


(NOTE: Whilst these measures predominantly target gender inequality in music education, they can be easily adapted and inserted into any institution that lacks diversity.)



Representation


The importance of representation when discussing diversity and inequality is central, yet the simplicity of the concept is often overlooked. Female representation in leadership positions within any institution is crucial to creating a gender diverse and supportive environment and is essential in eradicating underlying systematic oppression. All young people in the early stages of their careers should see themselves represented within the higher power structures. Without representation, women, and all marginalised communities, continue to see their futures in the hands of cis white men, potentially discouraging them from pursuing their career. 


The answer is simple - hire more women - and in order to achieve this we need our male leaders to step up. We need you to stop hiring your mate, your brother-in-law or the guy you used to jam with at university. Instead, look harder – be accountable for your actions and not complicit in this cycle. Ask yourself, do you have enough women employed? Do you have enough BIPOC and queer people employed? Are you actively dismantling the structures which allow you to sit on top, while others fight twice as hard for recognition? If you have the power and privilege to make change – it is your responsibility to highlight the voices of those who do not. 


How can we get more young women auditioning for tertiary study in music?


There is a notable inconsistency in female representation between our high school and university music programs. Tertiary study in music, and specifically in jazz, is potentially daunting to our younger women given the lack of gender equality within the industry. Naturally, this will cause some women to lack confidence in their talent and ability and be hesitant to audition. 


I think all music universities should have a team of female students who run workshops and initiate discussions with high school-aged female musicians. This is a super easy and practical initiative, and I believe would have an incredible impact on our next generation of female musicians. Establishing a community in which women can encourage other women is crucial to increasing female representation in male-centric systems. 


Photo: Renee Kypriotis

Quotas and targets to encourage representation

Establishing quotas and targets within the industry is becoming increasingly common as a means to combat gender inequality and promote representation, as they are an easy and effective way to set an explicit goal within any institution. However, this tactic remains a contentious and controversial topic for many people. A common argument against implementing quotas is that positions and promotions should be merit-based, not gender-based. Not only is this argument somewhat offensive because it implies that fewer women are qualified for these roles, judging people on merit is a practice that has clearly failed in the past. I'm sure everyone on interview and audition boards have believed they were accepting people based on “merit”, but our male dominated, and white washed industries would say otherwise. Until we eliminate the unconscious bias prevalent in our societies, one’s idea of “merit” will be skewed by their prejudice.  

Another common misconception is that quotas give unqualified and untalented women the positions of qualified and talented men. Instead, targets aim to prioritise qualified women over their equally qualified male counterparts and create a significant female presence. Having a collective of women is a means for deconstructing prejudice and bias, while adding only one or two women leads to tokenisation and delegitimisation. Targets provide a structured framework to overcome these unconscious biases, allowing less room for unintended discrimination to emerge. However, I must stress that targets are only a first step; they are not the fix-all solution. Targets promote and prioritise female participation, but we need deeper structural change and support systems to combat the prevailing gender inequalities.


Address AND discuss the inequalities


Commonly in our education systems and broader society, we often refrain from discussing sensitive topics in an attempt to avoid conflict and confrontation. However, this prioritisation of “peace-keeping” is an exercise in privilege and ignorance. When those who are in privileged positions decide not to discuss the inequalities and injustices that affect those around them, they are actively benefiting off this silence. If a cis-white male lecturer is addressing a class of 38 men and two women, and does not address the notable gender disparity, they are complicit in normalising and perpetuating inequality. If a cis-white male lecturer is teaching a class on the history of jazz to an entirely white cohort, and doesn’t address this lack of diversity, they are complicit in perpetuating ignorance. Most modern popular music was quite literally founded on oppression. People of colour created and revolutionised jazz in heavily segregated 20th century America, yet the genre, especially in the Melbourne music scene, has been appropriated by white privilege. Whilst playing, learning and teaching this genre is not oppressive in principle, if you choose to ignore its tumultuous history then you are complicit in this oppressive cycle. In order to respectfully appreciate and perform jazz music, we need to address its racist and misogynistic past AND present, especially in our education systems.  


Once again – the solution to this particular problem is rather straightforward. Initiate discussions and acknowledge inequalities. Address the continuous oppressive structures that define our music industries and our broader societies, being sure to highlight the voices of minorities. 


Studying the Sexism and Racism of Music’s History should be compulsory.


This is rather self-explanatory and builds upon my previous point. If our education systems want more diversity within their cohort, they need more diversity within their curriculum. If our industry wants to end the cyclic and systemic prejudices prevalent within our scene, we must educate our students on these frameworks, before dismantling them. Generally, we cannot eliminate a problem without first educating ourselves on it, and this accountability must be reflected in our curriculums. It seems obvious that within a system specifically designed to support and educate our upcoming musicians, education on the prevalence of discrimination within this genre and industry is necessary. 



Teach about women as much as you teach about men


Jazz students have analysed, discussed and worshipped the contributions of pioneering male musicians at length. It's obvious why - they were extraordinary players. However, in my experiences as a jazz student, our revolutionary female jazz musicians aren't afforded the same place in our classrooms. While Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are noted as exceptional singers, their compositions aren't regarded with the same esteem as those of their male counterparts. In my first year studying jazz, my cohort was given repertoire and song lists derived from 20th century jazz musicians and composers. In total, we were expected to learn, listen to and memorise some 50 jazz songs from the 20th century. There were over one hundred musicians featured on the list. Only four were women.


When I questioned this lack of representation, I was told that “there weren’t a lot of women making jazz at that time”, or that they “wish there were more female instrumentalists but there just weren’t as many back then”. Most alarmingly, I even heard that it's “too hard to find women who were as good at that time”. Whilst there are varying degrees of truth to these claims, this dismissive perspective perpetuates the cycles of female marginalisation in our music industry. If young women don't see themselves reflected in our school curriculums, why would they be compelled to study them?


It is first important to realise why there are less women in our jazz history. There is a pretty good reason why women in the 20th century are hard to find in our jazz history books - that reason being the damn patriarchy. There were plenty of incredible women learning, writing and playing music at this time, however they were not accepted on the stages or in the jazz clubs of the time. Women were not regarded as professional musicians, and were unaccepted in the toxic “boys club” jazz industry of the time. The women who destroyed these misogynistic frameworks and continued to create music despite being ostracised by their communities deserve to be regarded and respected in jazz history. The social politics of these times didn’t occur in a vacuum, they impacted every sphere of life and they must be taught as such.


If you google “female jazz musicians in the 20th century”, you will find countless vocalists and instrumentalists who played in the same scene as our male icons: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley, Irène Schweizer, Lovie Austin, and the list goes on. Revolutionary and influential female jazz musicians have played in the scene since the beginning. All of us - and especially our teachers - need to look harder. If you simply shrug and say, “there aren't enough good women in music history", then you are complicit in perpetuating a patriarchal mindset. 

Some programs are taking steps towards this. Some universities have recently made it compulsory to include a song showcasing a woman, or written by a woman, in all end of year recitals. This initiative is powerful and important. In my experience, if a recital does showcase a woman, it’s in a female musician’s recital. Forcing young male musicians to promote and support female musicians can help to actively dismantle their unconscious biases, thereby encouraging equality. This will work to educate students about influential female musicians of the past, whilst incorporating female musicians into repertoire and performances today.  


Photo: Brendan Bonsack

Stop tokenising your female musicians! 


Being a woman in a male-dominated institution, I have noticed that often we are separated into different ensembles and classes, so that each group can have their token female musician. This strategy seems logical on paper: try to have at least one woman in every class. However, in practice, this separation even further marginalises and ostracises the already out-numbered women in this institution. Alternatively, education systems should support their marginalised communities by allowing them to encourage each other. If you want all women to feel validated and welcomed within these male-centric institutions, give them opportunities to work together and support one another, don’t tokenise them. In my experiences, it is increasingly difficult to feel a sense of belonging when you are consistently the only female in your ensembles, performances and classes. Naturally, when feeling outnumbered in any social circumstance, we instinctively withdraw ourselves and feel a lack of confidence in our ideas and creations. Whilst focusing on systematic changes that will create a more inclusive learning environment for future female musicians, it is integral to also support the current female musicians. 


I encourage music institutions to create targeted ensembles only for women, or any marginalised community. These ensembles should not be audition-based or select entry, instead they should be an environment created to empower female musicians and encourage collaboration and creation. Creating spaces where women can feel supported and validated within their male-dominated institutions is integral for institutional and personal growth.


Address the dark history of jazz giants


Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Frank Sinatra are undeniably revolutionary and exceptional musicians. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing they have in common. These four pioneering men, amongst many others of the time, all have a sordid history of sexual assault and domestic violence. Miles Davis openly admitted to beating and abusing his three wives with little remorse and regret. His first wife once told a New York Times interviewer that “I actually left running for my life—more than once.” Similarly, Charlie “Bird” Parker had a reputation of exploiting and harassing young women for his sexual benefit. In Miles Davis’s memoir, we hear that Charlie Parker once forced a woman to perform oral sex on him in the back seat of a taxi while he ate fried chicken. Frank Sinatra was known for his “sex-parties” that he would host amongst the elite “boys-club” of the jazz industry, which would involve hiring young women to take part in group sexual activity, often under the influence of cocaine. Sinatra was also guilty of luring ex-girlfriend Marilyn Monroe to his Cal Neva Lodge resort in Lake Tahoe, where she was then drugged and sexually assaulted by Sinatra and other powerful men, including mob boss and leader Sam Giancana. 


Although these men are evidently impactful and important within the jazz and music industries, their moral failings often go unmentioned. These men should not be idolised. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate the musician from their music, but there is little effort to do so in our classrooms and society. Whilst these men made seminal contributions that continue to shape young jazz musicians today, our youth need to be made aware that they were abusers. For me, cancel culture is not the answer, and although I believe that their compositions should continue to be taught, it must be alongside a detailed depiction of their dark history off stage. If this abusive behaviour is not addressed, it is somewhat endorsed. We need to pierce the glossy artifice of our male icons and discuss their downfalls alongside their greatness, breaking the cycle of despicable behaviour in great male musicians. Our educational institutions have a responsibility to speak out against assault and violence, especially when these issues continue to plague our jazz industry today. 


Photo: Tania Jovanovic

Change is within your control, don’t view inequality as beyond the individual. 

As a society we fear change and often view prevalent inequalities as untouchable and unfixable by the individual. Although most of us can acknowledge the oppressive systems that continue to hold cis-het white men at the top, we can also feel overwhelmed and helpless in our quest to change this. However, an individual can make a difference and the pervading idea that inequality is just too big to handle is one of the reasons we lack progress in this industry, as we do in society. We need to reshape our perception of inequality to begin to see it as an individual responsibility, rather than a societal burden. There are countless small measures that men, and any person of privilege, can incorporate into their daily lives to support and foster those around them in marginalised communities. 


The first step is awareness: assess the situations and environments you find yourself in. Who do you surround yourself with? Are you predominantly surrounded by cis-white men? Do you lack diversity within your social circles and music communities? Question this. 

The next step is putting your money where your mouth is, both figuratively and literally! If you’re a young man in the industry and want to make change, it's as easy as actively supporting women, non-binary, queer and BIPOC people in the industry. Request their music on the radio. Listen to them and add them to your Spotify playlists. Share their music with your circles. Buy their music. Go to their gigs, book them for gigs, ask to collaborate with them. If you see questionable behaviour in your circles – CALL IT OUT. Just because they're your favourite band or a close friend, does not mean they get an excuse to be problematic. Stop getting the same cis-white friends on your trendy neo-soul line ups, we’re all so tired of seeing identical line ups every Saturday night. Branch out and demand diversity. Seek out BIPOC musicians and female fronted bands and demand representation. Until we see men actively using their voices to promote diversity, progress will remain largely at a standstill - we can’t do this alone! Make sure your gigs and events are safe for women and marginalised communities: Are the security guards trained in cultural sensitivity? Are there female and BIPOC people on staff? Boys club line ups promote boys club audiences, and we are tired of feeling objectified while trying to enjoy music. Most importantly – check in with your female-identifying, queer and BIPOC friends. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help them feel supported, actively check your privilege and combat your bias. 


The truth is, inequalities are often weaponised and used to divide our society. The prevailing “us-versus-them” mindset only magnifies and reinforces our differences, when we should be forming a united front. The truth is, a diverse and equal music industry will benefit everyone. If all musicians are placed on a level playing field, we will see truly earth-shattering creations and performances within our scene. An inclusive and diverse music industry will allow all artists to create music with equal opportunity – which will have indescribable benefits for our creative industry and music economy. However, if we continue to be complicit in the cyclic prejudices which plague our industry, we will remain divided and unequal.  


Change can happen, but only if we work together. We already have the ball rolling, so let’s support each other to keep the momentum and demand change. Remember, to the privileged, equality always feels like oppression. What is there to lose?


Keep up to date with Grace 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.


Thank you dearly to Grace for writing this.

Article first published 20 August 2020.

Photographs taken by Renee Kypriotis, Tania Jovanovic and Brendan Bonsack.

Written by Grace Robinson with contributions by Kali Shanthi. Edited by Jake Amy, Rose Bassett and Michael Belchamber.

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