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Music has a gender problem — why do women bear the burden of fixing it?

Cover image for Music has a gender problem — why do women bear the burden of fixing it?
Photo of Tatiana Cirisano
by Tatiana Cirisano

On International Womens’ Day, MIDiA published the fourth annual edition of BE THE CHANGE: Gender equity in music, in collaboration with TuneCore and Believe. We surveyed more than 4,100 music creators and professionals from 133 countries, as well as conducting interviews, to learn about their challenges in the industry. We also paid special attention to how factors such as race and sexual orientation intersect with gender to create overlapping discrimination and disadvantage.

Among the findings: Women and gender expansive* individuals are twice as likely as men to discover they are paid less than colleagues in the same or similar roles — and women of colour, nearly three times as likely. Three in five women in music have been sexually harassed, and one in five have been sexually assaulted. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, only 16% of men say the music industry is generally discriminative based on gender, compared to 49% of women. 

What the bigger picture tells us is that the burden is still on women and gender expansive individuals to adapt their behaviour to protect themselves from these issues, rather than on everyone else to put an end to wrongdoing in the first place.

Take sexual harassment and assault — the most urgent issue, still. More than 70% of women in music who have been sexually harassed or assaulted did not report these experiences. Instead, they work around them. Creators we interviewed described wearing sweatpants to the studio to avoid being harassed, only taking fan photos with women to avoid being groped, and always having a male family member present to ward off unwanted sexual advances. South African amapiano artist Khanyisa told us how she even writes choruses with phrases like “move out of the way” (“suka” in Xhosa) to help women at clubs turn men down in a playful manner that avoids conflict. In these situations and others, another female creator described, the harassment and abuse perpetrated by others “becomes your problem.”

This may create an illusion that harassment and abuse is declining, when the reality is that women and gender expansive people are taking drastic measures to avoid it. When those options run out, they are resorting to leaving the music industry. Both women and gender expansive identities are around twice as likely as men to cite industry culture and discrimination or harassment as reasons they have considered quitting altogether.

So what does BE THE CHANGE actually mean? On the one hand, women and gender expansive individuals are being the change because they have found it is necessary for survival  — quite an unfair burden to bear. On the other hand, for many of the creators we interviewed, assuming the role of change-maker has been a tremendous source of empowerment. Chilean artist Francisca Valenzuela told us about launching feminist platform Ruidosa, which hosts panels and a festival. New York-based artist Yasmina found the courage to learn to produce music, despite being told it was a “man’s job”. Armenian singer-songwriter Rosa Linn signed with Nvak Collective, a record label that strives to support underrepresented groups. In her powerful foreword to the report, describing how she has navigated the industry as a queer woman, Melissa Etheridge wrote that “the best change is to become what you want to see”.

These women are far from alone. Colombian superstar Karol G echoed these stories in her Billboard Women of the Year acceptance speech last week, saying (translated from Spanish), “I decided that if my environment did not change, I was the one who had to change and I was the one who was going to do it”.

All this may explain why, when asked who they trust to make changes in the industry for the better, women and gender expansive individuals are most likely to choose “individual creators / artists” (38%). On the other hand, only one in ten say they trust label executives. 

Here is where it gets real for the music business — not just morally and ethically, but in monetary terms as well. Men have long benefited from gender imbalances, which is part of the reason the industry has been so slow to change. But if labels and other stakeholders continue on this path, women and gender expansive talents are not going to stick around and wait. Some are already moving on. In our report, Valenzuela describes how these issues led her to reluctantly leave the major label system: “They don’t really understand me — they never did”. And in The Independent’s Women’s Day feature last week, rising pop star Rina Sawayama maligned how she “can’t release another album in [her] current conditions”. That includes being signed to an independent label whose director, Matty Healy, recently resigned after making blatantly racist and sexist comments in a podcast interview. As we conclude in our report, the message for music companies is simple: Make the change happen, or have the change happen to you.

The good news is that this report not only examines these challenges, but also recommends clear, actionable strategies for combating them. Specific calls-to-action by industry sector are included at the end of every section. We urge everyone in the industry (and beyond) to read this report thoroughly, and take time to reflect on its findings. And please, share the burden. Support us by being the change, too.

The 2024 edition of BE THE CHANGE: Gender equity in music is available here in English, Spanish, and French. The report's Executive Summary is translated into 12 additional languages.

*Gender expansive refers to the segment of survey respondents who indicated that they identify as nonbinary, agender / neutrois, transgender, or “other”.

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