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The Challenge Of Organising A Gender-Balanced Conference In The Music Industry


AIM's annual independent label conference Indie-Con is coming round on 1st February and whilst our events have always been better than industry norms in terms of having a diverse and gender-balanced selection of speakers, this year I decided to set the concrete goal of achieving a 50% female line-up. Complete gender equality. I mean, women make up half of the population, so it shouldn't be all that hard...right?

In reality it has been far more of a challenge than I expected beforehand, and has got me thinking about some really deep-rooted problems affecting women in business. As it stands, we have almost two thirds of our speakers in place and we currently have 19 women to 23 men, despite my commitment to this challenge frankly verging on obsession.

I have scoured the internet, industry magazines and social networks, looking for women who aren't already known to the AIM team but are doing brilliant things in music. The good news is, there are LOADS of them. I've read about and spoken to women who are kicking ass in artist management, A&R, brands, funding, live music, radio broadcasting, streaming, business development and countless other areas. It has been an enlightening process, and I am excited to have so many of these women involved in an AIM event for the first time. And yet no matter how hard I push, we haven't yet quite hit that magic 50%. Why?

As far as I can see, there are two main reasons for this. The first is that the industry clearly does have a longstanding gender inequality problem, meaning there is a lack of women working at senior levels compared with men. I know an abundance of incredibly smart and ambitious young women working in entry and lower level management jobs in the industry, or running small companies and freelance operations of their own, but only a dozen or so women in the UK music business hold top level positions.

This fact leads to the problem of the same few female faces popping up on every industry event line-up. Music business conferences end up with panel after panel of older white men, peppered with these same few top level women. It's boring, repetitive and unimaginative.

There's a huge gap between the handful of 'go to' women at the top and the many hard-working but unrecognised women in less senior roles.

This gap is a problem that the music industry needs to act together to address (and is slowly doing so), not least because gender equality is proven to benefit business and economic performance. When it comes to conferences, this gap doesn't need to be an issue. I love the idea of younger, less senior women speaking for the first time in their career at an AIM conference. Many have done so and have shared incredible expertise and insight into their area of the business. Less senior does not mean less to say. In fact, given that the music industry was turned on its head by the internet just 12 or so years ago, it's often the younger and less senior speakers who share innovative and relevant ideas rather than war stories of the 'good old days'.

So that brings me to the other reason why it's so hard to achieve a gender-balanced event programme, and this, I feel, is much more of an issue in the case of Indie-Con. Many women do not feel confident and knowledgeable enough to speak publicly, and fear that the holes in their knowledge will be exposed when on stage. Women are far more likely to reject an offer to speak publicly than their male counterparts. On counting the responses from those I have approached about speaking at Indie-Con, over 50% of women declined or did not respond to my invitation, versus only 15% of men. Every man who was unable to accept the speaking invitation stated that they were unavailable due to other commitments, whereas several women said they didn't like public speaking, and several more recommended a male colleague instead.

This isn't a music business problem, but an issue affecting women in every industry, and something Sheryl Sandberg details in her excellent book about women in business, 'Lean In'. Women are more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, a nagging sense of self-doubt which prevents you from internally recognising your own talents, knowledge and achievements. This being the case, presenting a gender-balanced event programme is a huge challenge. Work needs to be done in the music industry, in every industry, and in fact even at school level to help women (indeed, anyone with confidence issues) to overcome these internal barriers that hold us back.

We continue to work towards achieving a gender-balanced INDIE-CON 2017, and I'm optimistic that we can get there as we put final speakers in place. If we do, I believe it will be the music industry's first fully gender-balanced conference programme, which is a very powerful message from AIM. It will also be a fantastic event; every speaker has been selected not for gender or diversity reasons, but because they are experts and innovators in their field. It takes research and hard work to identify people outside of the 'usual suspects', but the end result is a truly unique and exciting conversation. I'm looking forward to 1st February.

Find out more about AIM's Indie-Con 2017 event on the AIM website, here.

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