Women in Music - There's Still a Problem (and I'm Part of It)

There are currently six women presenting solo shows at Xfm London. There are fourteen men. So comparatively we are bucking the trend at 30% females (versus the national average of 20%). Imagine a male DJ joining a station and finding himself one of only six men amongst fourteen female presenters. Do you think for one moment he would proclaim to his friends that he is "lucky to be amongst so many male presenters"?

When I was asked to speak at an event last weekend discussing inequality for women in music as part of International Women's Day my initial thought was: "but I haven't experienced inequality, so how could I possibly talk about it?" I've been lucky in my career, moving from setting up a music events company, to music PR, to broadcasting on Xfm, where I remain today presenting the weekend afternoon shows. At each of these steps, I felt I'd been treated as an equal and judged on my work as an individual and not by my gender.

I reached out to some of my fellow female Xfm DJs. What was their experience in the broadcast industry (the area I presumed I was being expected to focus on)? Perhaps they felt they have been overlooked or underpaid over the years due to being women? The answer was a resounding "no". They almost universally proclaimed how "lucky we are" to be working at a station such as Xfm with "so many female DJs on air". I agreed wholeheartedly. Our boss is progressive and fair. Promotions, pay rises and positions are seemingly allocated on talent and results alone.

So, what's the problem? I nearly pulled out of the talk at the Roundhouse, fearful I would have nothing of value to add to the discussion. But then I remembered something I'd learnt whilst studying experimental psychology at university - that anecdotal evidence can't always be trusted, that our own perceptions may be distorted by a number of factors and that if in doubt, look at the statistics. And so I began.

One out of five radio broadcasters in the UK are solo females (20%). That figure drops to one in eight for the prime time slots (the drive time and breakfast shows). For co-presenting teams of two or more 39% are all male, and only 4% all female. Most startling of all was the fact that there are currently no examples of all female duos or teams presenting either of the most influential slots (breakfast or drive). Zero per cent. Zero.

So there is clearly a gender imbalance when it come to broadcasting. We can't deny that. But so what, right? Maybe there are simply more men vying for these positions, less women interested in presenting or these higher profile roles. Or perhaps men are just better at it? I certainly wouldn't expect or want someone less proficient to be given a job over a more talented male counterpart simply to balance the numbers. Or maybe men and women simply prefer to listen to male voices, and, as a male colleague of mine pointed out, in a commercial radio setting listening figures are crucial.

Personally I simply don't buy that men are "better at it" than women. That's certainly not my own experience as an avid radio listener and I like to hope we've all moved on from a time when we think that any one gender is better suited to a job than the other. We've seen too many u-turns in traditional gender-specific jobs to seriously consider that. However, it is very possible that female broadcasters are generally rated less favourably by listeners than their male counterparts, which puts commercial radio bosses in a tricky position. After all, numbers count. And the public wants what the public wants... but couldn't this be simply down to conditioning? If we are all more used to hearing male voices on the radio,then that becomes what we're familiar with. And that means that over time (and with greater exposure to female voices) our tastes can change. As for whether more men are vying for those positions, again, yes, that's very possible. But if so, why? Are young women put off by a lack of role models or confidence? Are young men simply encouraged to be more self-assured in their abilities and to push themselves forward? When Beth Orton held a residency in Manchester at Band on the Wall for women only (after a severe lack of female entrants in the past), there was a fourfold increase in the number of female applicants, suggesting these women didn't feel like they had a shot when they were up against the boys.

Clearly these possibilities all need further exploration but one thing is for sure - looking at figures for women in broadcasting certainly made me take another look at my own perceptions. Take the first statement me and several of my female colleagues had agreed on....that we were lucky to work for a radio station with "so many female presenters". There are currently six women presenting solo shows at Xfm London. There are fourteen men. So comparatively we are bucking the trend at 30% females (versus the national average of 20%). I'd go so far as to say this is the highest percentage of solo women presenters I know of amongst any major station (in no small part attributable to our forward thinking boss who personally brought in five new female presenters when he took over as station head). But again, let's turn the tables for one moment... Imagine a male DJ joining a station and finding himself one of only six men amongst fourteen female presenters. Do you think for one moment he would proclaim to his friends that he is "lucky to be amongst so many male presenters"? Or do you think perhaps he might notice that he was in the minority amongst a considerably higher number of females?

Why are our own perceptions so skewed? Why are mine? To the point when even we, the women working in these jobs, don't see the imbalance which is staring us in the face across the industry?

Again, I revisited that first figure of 0% all-women presenting teams on drive time or breakfast shows. There are several examples of brilliant female DJs having presented these prime time slots on their own: Lauren Laverne, Zoe Ball and Annie Nightingale are just a few high profile examples but why no duos? No teams? I thought of our own current breakfast show on Xfm - the brilliant combination of Jon Holmes, Matt Dyson and Dave Masterman and asked myself - why not three women?

Do you know what happened? I instantly thought "ooh, I'm not sure I'd want to listen to that". Me. A woman. In broadcasting. How could I? I realised with horror I had conjured up images of a gaggle of women, cackling and giggling. Why?! WHY?! I'm not like that. None of the women I know are like that (in or outside the broadcasting world). The women I spend time with are intelligent and hilarious. The women I broadcast alongside are professional and talented.

I was horrified at my apparent bias against my own gender. But should it really be so shocking?

An experiment set up in the maternity wing of a hospital secretly dressed all the male babies in pink baby-grows, and the female babies in blue baby-grows and found, using hidden cameras, that the maternity nurses reacted very differently to the babies crying. The boy babies dressed in pink (whom the nurses presumedly assumed were girls) were mostly comforted and cuddled and kissed when crying. The girl babies dressed in blue were generally told to "be a brave boy" and stop crying. Effectively to "man up".

From the moment we are born we are treated differently depending on our gender. Add to that cultural influences, the media, and generations and generations of patriarchal history and suddenly it doesn't seem that surprising that gender biases exist. At the Women in Music talk (which I ended up gladly taking part in and was heartened to see so many men taking part as well) there wasn't one person in the room who hadn't experienced discrimination in one form or another against women in their work place, however subtle.

When blind auditions were employed at orchestral try outs (where musicians auditioned hidden behind screens) 50% more women ended up being employed than when their gender was apparent. When an experiment was set up sending an identical CV out to prospective employers with only the applicant's name being changed (from male to female) the results showed that the female applicants were judged as less employable than the males.

The good news is a huge amount of progress has already been made. I don't need to tell you how different broadcasting is today compared with 1928 when The Daily Express wrote that "a woman's voice becomes monotonous over time, her high notes are sharp, and resemble the filing of steel, while her low notes often sound like groans". Or even since the 1999 when (as Caroline Mitchell described in Women and Radio) one boss of a Manchester station described a potential female presenter as unbroadcastable despite being a "great reporter" because "she sounds like a fishwife or a washer woman". Things are changing. Progress is being made. And The Women in Music day at Roundhouse was full of hope, positivity, and real suggestions to bring about change - mentoring schemes; greater exposure to high profile women in the industry; more blind auditions (like those now regularly employed by orchestras who aren't afraid to acknowledge their unconscious biases); and all-female band scheme's like Beth Orton's recent Band in the Wall. There's so much that can be done and so many men and women keen to be part of the solution.

But it's clear to me that the first step to overcome our biases is to openly acknowledge them. So it's time we stopped making excuses. It's time to accept that, like it or not, we all have gender biases (and for that matter other superficial biases based on factors like race, religion and age). We needn't be ashamed of them. They don't make us bad people. Cognitive biases are a natural part of our human make-up, a psychological necessity which has evolved over time, allowing us to make essential, instantaneous decisions in a world where we simply don't have enough time to get to know every single person we encounter on the street. And we don't necessarily have to act upon them (this much is within our control). But acknowledging our own biases is the first step towards changing them. The only step. So let's stop pretending they don't exist and instead try to work towards overcoming them, and ensuring that each individual is judged on their abilities alone. After all, it's all of us who benefit when the truly gifted rise to the top.


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