Why do women make up less than 10% of the bookings at festivals, or even on our own Top 100 DJs list? Is sexism inherent in our industry? And how can inequality be challenged?
“Fear is the weapon that keeps women down. It’s always the case,” Gloria Allred states. She speaks the truth in that frank, unadorned manner synonymous with her name. The US civil rights attorney is renowned for her sharp handling of high-profile, controversial women’s rights cases as a legislative champion of feminism for over three decades. In a conversation with DJ Mag, she addresses the nagging issue of gender discrimination in music’s workplace, offering a perspective that only the select few in her position can contribute.
There are risks associated with shedding light on something no one wants to acknowledge. But as she artfully reminds us, “There’s also the cost of silence. That can be really high.”
Allred knows about that cost. She has represented the family of Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen who was brutally beaten to death. She filed the first lawsuit in California challenging the denial of marriage licenses to gay couples as being unconstitutional. She has publicly rebuked conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh for his disparaging remarks about a woman who testified before congress to advocate for free birth control. Today, Gloria Allred represents a group of 30 women who have broken years of their own silence by accusing Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct and assault.
In a literal sense, the dance music world is anything but silent. From its inception, the music has served as a vehicle for loud self-expression, a cultural movement founded on the tenets of peace, love, unity and respect, sprung from a marginalized population — house music, lest anyone forget, was born in the black and gay communities of Chicago.
Why then, when market research shows a near-even gender split in dance music’s audience demographic, do female DJ/producers comprise less than 10% of the professional pool, including our own Top 100 DJs list? Why do some feel the need to hide their femininity behind aliases, or their breasts beneath baggy shirts? Why are both men and women uncomfortable when questions regarding this state of affairs arise?
“In general, as a society, we often value women less than men and therefore women get paid less than men. That’s just the sexist socialization of women and girls, and it just continues and becomes part of the social fabric,” Allred explains. “How do we change that? Well obviously, employment should be merit-based. But often, it’s not. Often, there are sexual stereotypes, that somehow a man can do it better. And often it’s just a stereotype and it’s not based in reality.”
The reality of inequality remains, whatever the stereotypes in dance music may be. Disparity in bookings and in pay do exist, whether a consequence of our social fabric or some other factor. It is possible that the perceived barrier to entry and uphill battle female artists face is enough of a detriment to narrow the pool of talent, but that alone doesn’t account for such a wide gender gap.
Sexism exists as much in music as it does anywhere else. Just ask the starlets in Hollywood or the women on Wall Street. Gloria Allred says she has worked with many women across the music industry who have chosen to address their allegations of discrimination behind closed doors, not filing lawsuits but instead settling cases via confidential settlement processes for fear of jeopardizing their future career opportunities.
As an attorney, Allred suggests that this is an effective measure, albeit one that relies on the motivations of capitalism: it presumes that an employer understands the language of financial consequences and will be discouraged from discriminating the next time around. “We always say the cost of the wrong should be borne by the wrongdoer, not the victim of the harm. So we seek compensation for the victim, to which she’s entitled, under the law.”
But if no one hears the song of injustice that that victim is singing, it’s difficult for the global community to react. Demand must also shift enough to encourage supply, and a highly motivated record executive alone is not enough to do the trick. Allred herself admits that unless women stand up and seek support and legal advice and take some action, “This kind of discrimination… is going to continue.” There’s been a broken record stuck on repeat for centuries, spitting the same rhetoric that implies women are less capable than their male counterparts. How do we change the track?
Belgian DJ/producer Charlotte de Witte has an idea. The 23-year-old artist has been successfully producing and performing under a male alias since she was discovered at age 17, when she won the Tomorrowland DJ Contest. Known for the first six years of her career as Raving George, during which she snagged prime spots as festivals and clubs, Charlotte only recently revealed herself by her given name at the end of 2015. Her pale, blonde features are fair, her cheekbones delicate and her voice gentle. She looks the way her name sounds: decidedly feminine.
Yet her first release as Charlotte de Witte, a four-track EP titled ‘Weltschmerz’ on Tiga’s Turbo Recordings, is the breed of dark, moody techno that rolls forward at an aggressive pace. Its heaviness is punctuated by melodic moments but by conventional standards, the EP’s sound is not aesthetically aligned with Charlotte’s femininity. If she were a guy, no one would care. Maybe no one will care now, because the music itself is stunning and the release has support from techno heavyweights Richie Hawtin and Laurent Garnier. Or maybe no one will care because she has already built up her credibility under a male name — something she felt she needed to do in order to avoid being stigmatized.
“Even with a male artist name, people just judge you on the fact that you’re a woman and it’s quite sad. And I kind of wanted to avoid it. But it’s not surprising at all,” Charlotte says. “I had this feeling that I had to prove myself so, so, so very hard... it took so long for people to see it.”
She shakes her head as she recounts some of the hateful, sexist comments she received after winning the Tomorrowland competition on the festival’s massive main stage. Charlotte was a teenage girl on display in front of thousands, being told it was her body, not her abilities, that took top prize. It’s easy to see why she chose to proceed under the veil of androgyny.
“And even now, when I go DJing, I never show big cleavage because I really want to make the statement that I’m in it for the music, not because I need attention as a woman or anything. I think if I were to start showing cleavage, people might get confused,” she pauses, adding emphatically, “even though I should be free to wear whatever the fuck I want to wear.”
Charlotte points out that it’s not just unfair sexualization of women that plagues dance music, but ageism as well. Men can DJ well into their mid-life without reproach, whereas women are judged at best and ostracised at worst. As for the harbinger of change, she believes that giving strong female artists around the world equal opportunities is the solution. “I think it’s like that not only with DJing, but with every job.”
Sarah Bowden, a successful dance music artist manager and founder of London-based booking and management agency The Jockey Club, agrees with Charlotte de Witte. As a woman who has worked on the business side of music for over 15 years, Bowden insists, “I’ve heard every excuse there is about how there ‘just isn’t the talent there’ but this is pretty much said about every industry in the world known for its sexism. I’m fairly certain we can find more than enough females to cover our bases. The more talented women that get written about and placed in jobs of merit, the more you will see them emerging.”
Sarah notes that dance music is a hard game to play, no matter your chromosomes. “Unfortunately, it’s a tough industry right now, especially for emerging artists. Promoters are taking less of a gamble on everyone and not just women. That said, the media should be actively encouraging women to give producing, managing, promoting a go, and the music industry at large absolutely must have a better level of proportional representation.”
Neither Sarah Bowden nor Charlotte de Witte are renowned civil rights attorneys, but their respective positions are in line with Gloria Allred’s on the matter of merit-based employment and the need to identify discrimination while actually taking action. Conversation is necessary too, but it alone will never incite change. Talent needs to be given an opportunity to shine, regardless of whatever is between one’s legs or how sexuality is displayed.
As Allred asks in her parting words: “This is entertainment; what are the expectations in the entertainment sector? Are you willing to meet them, or are those unfair expectations?” Maybe that’s the track that needs to change.