If you were assembling an elite squad to fight for gender equality in music, you’d want Samantha Parsley heading up your research room.

Professor Samantha Parsley is a learned and passionate leader in gender in music research as well as an electronic music producer and DJ. A research academic, she is also the founder of In The Key, a research project focused on gathering much-needed data to investigate gender imbalances in the world of electronic music production, a space that has always been male-dominated.

The fantastic podcast series that accompanies In The Key is a must-listen, featuring fascinating interviews with female-identifying and gender-expansive producers on their careers and the challenges and successes that have accompanied their journeys.

In speaking to Samantha about gender in music we wanted to present data-based evidence, hard facts that can’t be argued away. Whilst her research is focused on electronic music, Samantha has knowledge of wide-ranging facts and statistics as well as anecdotal evidence that lays bare the uphill battle to success faced by female-identifying and gender-expansive people in all areas of the music industry.

Amongst her responses, she offered clear-eyed advice to organisations seeking to be more inclusive, along with fierce opposition to those who oppose change. If anyone doubts that music has a gender problem, show them this interview.

First of all, please introduce yourself!

My name is Samantha Parsley (she/her) and I’m a Professor in Organization Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK. I’ve been researching electronic music production and gender for a few years now.

I’m also a DJ and producer myself under the name of Dovetail and I’ve been a long-time raver since the year 2000.

Can you summarise the In The Key project, and explain why research and data is important in understanding the problems faced by non-male music industry workers?

Back in 2018 I set out to build a robust qualitative-evidence base of the career experiences of women self-producers of electronic music, focusing on their success strategies as much as the challenges they face.

We live in a world where data is central to driving change. I’d begun researching DJing in general a couple of years earlier, and learned that producing music, as well as playing other people’s, is increasingly key to success in electronic genres.

The thing I found intriguing was that the numbers of women DJs who produced their own tunes seemed to be very small. As festivals and promoters prefer to book producers and artists, rather than DJs, this seemed to be a key obstacle in achieving gender balanced line-ups.

So, I set about finding out why and how we could address gender imbalance in production.

Name some barriers unique to women & non-binary people in the music industry.

Feeling, and being, excluded. On the flipside, being accused of tokenism.

Having your skills and competence doubted, purely based on your identity. Non-male producers are assumed to have someone who engineers for them, and when working with men its assumed that the man did the production. Electronic music production is a very technical thing, and technology affirms a male identity and defies traditional social ideas about femininity.

Worrying that someone you’re collaborating with is either going to hit on you, or wants to harm you in some way. The women in my study spoke of the self-doubt that engenders, and also how they simply didn’t take men up on an offer of collaboration because they’d had bad experiences or knew people who did.

Being sexualised and having hyper-attention on your appearance above your musical talent or technical skill. If you do dare to dress in a “suggestive” way, or are particularly attractive, those first two problems I identified are magnified.

Experiencing greater push-back from labels, promoters, talent bookers and so on, when it comes to contracting for publishing and appearances. These stakeholders question way more clauses and arrangements for non-male artists than they do for men.

Online misogyny! Anecdotally, I’ve noticed women and gender-expansive producers get way more nasty trolling comments on their content on socials than men do. Someone needs to do a study of this. Trolls on men’s posts tend to focus on perceived lack of skill. Women are subject to abuse on their appearance, dress, sexual habits – you name it.

It’s heart-breaking to see. It actively stops these talented people posting content. And without content by women, trans and non-binary producers, we don’t have adequate representation to inspire new generations of artists.

I could go on, but those are the main barriers!

When working together female-identifying artists say they feel more in control, not intimidated, in a non-judgemental space. Do you ever find working or communicating with other women feels different?

100% yes. In the same way that guys feel like they can be “bros together,” so it is with women. We love getting together for a good old chat!

There’s generally just a sense of togetherness, inclusion, equality, and so on in an all-female or gender minority space. You don’t feel daft asking questions, you don’t have to worry about looking stupid in front of guys who are either super confident or patronising.

It’s much easier to be confident when you are among like-minded and welcoming others! You aren’t going to enjoy the networking process that is so important to career success, and often come across as lacking in confidence. It’s very hard to be “the only one in the room” and feel you belong.

There seems to be a posturing and quite aggressive tone to the male-dominated forums and groups online that I belong to for example. When someone asks for help, there are always other guys ready to put them down or be negative, whereas that is entirely absent from the women’s groups. It’s also more inclusive, and mindful of pronouns, too.

It’s natural to feel inspired when you see people in positions of power that you can identify with, from crediting songwriters properly up to CEOs. How can we shift the narrative to women being seen as leaders in the music industry?

Great question. I think you answered it yourself there, when you suggest crediting people properly. That’s certainly one way – making women and gender-expansive creators visible and recognised for their work.

We also need to involve senior women in positions of expertise, such as on conference panels and judging panels, as teachers in music production schools. We need to de-gender the curriculum. By that I mean use materials written by women, and content produced by women, when we are teaching the craft of production.

I’m interested to hear your opinion on removing gender from awards show categories, for example making the Brit Award for Best Artist gender-neutral. In a similar vein, do you think it’s helpful for non-male producers and artists to be introduced as a “female producer,” for example, as opposed to simply a producer? Does it result in non-male music roles being treated as a novelty?

What you’re talking about is the salience of gender here. So yes, on both counts, remove the label “female” – there is no need to qualify the “best artist” by gender, or the “best single” or the “best anything” in the same way there is no need to call a producer a “female producer.” Although I do this a lot, because I am specifically talking about women in my work.

That said, just because gendered categories are removed from awards doesn’t mean that positive action shouldn’t be carried out in terms of the nominations. The pool of talent from which the award is drawn needs to be diverse.

And before anyone whines “But that’s not fair!” let me remind you of the barriers I outlined previously, that don’t apply to men, do not hinder their ability to exercise their talent, and do not stop them from achieving. Not seeing these is a direct result of male privilege – assuming that the playing field is level and that everyone has the same chance of success, which is not the case.

So, positive action is essential to level up the field, and reduce the effects of that privilege. Without that, “gender neutral” becomes “gender blind,” and male structural bias creeps in.

How do you feel about asking artists themselves to work towards equality, for example pledging not to sign up to events that have less than half non-male artists on a festival line up? Is it fair to put that on artists rather than organisers?

This is a question of relative power, to be honest. It’s hard to do if you’re an emerging artist from a minority when you are faced with the very real possibility of being cancelled for having an inclusion rider.

So, we need established artists to step up – Jaguar has an inclusion rider on her contract, for example. We need men to do this too.

The really big names have so much power, and could make so much difference. They’re afraid of backlash for going there when it comes to gender and race, and are also able to walk away from these issues because of their privilege.

How do you think we can make spaces safer for non-male artists and producers?

Educate, call-out shitty behaviour, speak up, shame people who behave badly. Provide safe spaces for men who want to learn about this stuff without fear of looking ignorant.

Often gender or queer minorities in dance music create their own amazing safe and brave spaces where they can support each other, party in safety and so on. But this also creates separation, division and enclaves that mean the mainstream stays the straight “male-stream”.

Let’s talk about successes, too! Can you name some organisations or projects – aside from In The Key, of course – that are particularly good at lifting up women and gender-expansive people in the music industry?

Organisations such as Women in CTRL are actively championing women and gender-expansive people to apply for board positions of prominent music organizations for example. There are several excellent YouTube channels run by women such as LNA Does Audio Stuff.

Here are just some! There are so many more out there.

  • 23 by 23
  • Sisu
  • Women in CTRL
  • 2% Rising (Facebook community)
  • Toolroom #WeAreListening
  • Lady of the House
  • Boudica
  • The F List
  • Saffron
  • MPW (Music Production for Women)
  • The Jaguar Foundation
  • She Said.So
  • Female:Pressure
  • Femme House

Where can young people of any gender turn to learn about diversity in the music industry?

On the In the Key website there are lots of resources to browse – links to blog posts, articles, reports. The websites of the organisations I mention above are also good for this too.

One documentary I definitely recommend is Underplayed. It’s so powerful – I dare any guy to watch this and then say there is a level playing field in music! Other great films include Sisters with Transistors, and A Life in Waves.

Listening to podcast interviews with gender minority producers is also super insightful. There are 35 of these on the In the Key website (36 is on its way!) and there are also some great episodes on the Resident Advisor podcast series too.  

When it comes to issues of race, check out Saffron’s resources – they are specifically about championing black and brown women, and then there’s also Black Lives in Music with their amazing campaigns too.

So, lots of inspiration there!

How would you like to see a company like RouteNote represent and support creative women and gender-expansive artists, labels and communities?

Recognise that minorities welcome the opportunity to connect with others. If you’re the only person like you who you know makes music, how are you ever going to form those friendships and networks that are so important to furthering your career?

Also, its important for minority artists to have their work platformed. I can’t stress enough how important visibility is in normalising industries. If we stop seeing white dudes everywhere and start seeing other kinds of faces, then we slowly start to dismantle implicit bias and stereotypes that are at the root of so many inequality practices.

Other concrete things that can be done are to matchmake artists with labels, promoters, and opportunities. All too often gatekeepers rely on their networks for talent acquisition which usually means they end up with more folks who look and sound like them. This doesn’t make any sense from a business perspective – where’s the unique proposition in offering 23 white dudes who all sound the same?

Great resources for finding diverse artists are the In the Key Producer Directory, Dynamics, the Draw the Line Radio show. There’s also the Female:Pressure mix series too for finding new music by women and gender minorities.

What projects do you have lined up for 2023?

I’m currently working on a book from the research so watch this space for that! There will also be more podcasts, and blog posts so do keep an eye on my socials for updates.

Look for the RouteNote Elevate badge to learn more about gender diversity in music and discover some incredible diverse artists.