Why Not More Women Make Electronic Music and How This Could Change

Today is International Women’s Day and so this post will be about women making electronic music. Kind of…

Let me begin with a little story. When I started working at Ableton as a tech support I noticed two things.

  1. There was only the rare email or call from a woman asking for technical help.
  2. I turned out to be the first woman giving tech support there (Laura Escude was a product specialist which requires as much knowledge, but is a different job).

Later I learnt only 7% of the Ableton Live users were female. That was in 2010 or 2011. I didn’t expect a high percentage, but 7% sorta shocked me. That really got me thinking. Computers have become common household objects, musical gear and software has become much cheaper and easier to operate. So why is it still such a low number of girls and women making electronic music?

So no, I won’t write about a trend of more women getting into music. I don’t want to focus on the female greats of electronic music or talk about how there are so few women in electronic music in this post. Instead I’d like to propose why the percentage might be so low. It’s not based on any statistics or in depth research, but rather personal experiences and endless conversations about the subject with both men and women. In short, my theory is utterly subjective.

Missing allure

For me, music has always been an integral part of my life. Making music or not making music was never the question. Most guys, however, seem to get started with music when they’re teenagers. When I meet a guy who plays guitar, I always ask when he started. ‘As a teenager?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘To appear cool and impress the girls?’ Generally, I get a yes as well, if somewhat more reluctant. No woman I talked to got started with music for these reasons though. Why? Because a girl is rather seen as kooky and boys don’t find girls making music more rad. There’s simply no incentive there. There are also less role models to aspire to. Girls rarely get into music to reach a certain social status.

The percentages are still pretty even when it comes to learning an instrument, but they start diverging dramatically when it comes to music production and the use of technology. There’s an interesting theses called ‘De-gendering the electronic soundscape: women, power and technology in contemporary music‘ from 1996 that is still worth the read. In it Brown concludes:

[...] most women tackle their learning of technology in isolation or by ranging the fringes of male activity, rather than by forming solidarity groups and setting up cooperative learning situations with peers.

Gender clichés as obstacles

There are a lot of clichés out there that contribute to this. From the one, that women have a poor taste in music to the one that a woman in music surely must be the singer to the women and technology myth.

When I started doing phone support shifts I was shocked how often I was either mistaken for a secretary or how some insisted to speak to someone else when they heard a woman’s voice on the other end. Mostly in the American shift, occasionally in the European one and never by a woman. Some guys though were thrilled to talk to a female support, I’d like to add. Yes, I had heard all the ‘We don’t play with girls because they can’t carry their own amps.’ or ‘You sing on this track’? or ‘Who produced your songs?’ etc. pp. But I didn’t expect to be confronted with the same prejudice after being hired for this specific job (Ableton’s hiring process involves tests and quite a few interviews). When I asked my direct boss how I could react on the phone, he ignored my concerns with ‘I can’t imagine that.’ Turning a deaf ear doesn’t make an issue disappear, just saying.

Encountering the same prejudices over and over is not unlike a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls often have to work harder to be taken seriously especially in music production and thus, only the ones truly interested will continue. There’s an interesting article in Attack Magazine about women in electronic music, and even though it means well, it also voices the same cliché:

For women to impact upon the male saturated space of electronic dance music is tough, not just with the mastering of the technical side or the creating and playing of tracks, but with the individual’s reception.

It’s not about getting treated differently, women already are. Rehashing clichés doesn’t help. As long as technology is attributed with masculintiy and stereotypical gender roles are supported, not much will change. Let’s just assume that anyone could be good in any field he or she chooses and encourage this. Ultimately, it’s about human beings fulfilling their dreams and going after their passions, isn’t it? And while we’re at it, let’s stop with the ‘murses’ jokes, too.

I’d like to end this post with Dani Siciliano’s fitting ‘Be My Producer’:

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you agree? Think I’m totally off with my theory?