Women’s History Month: Ways to Address Bias or Sexism on the Gig

If your career working as a female-bodied or -identifying musical performer or as a student has been anything like mine, the negative experiences you’ve had have ranged the gamut from subtle instances of patronizing behavior all the way up to outright sexism and harassment.  It’s taken me many years to build up an arsenal of comebacks, attitudes, personal strength, and knowing where to take the fight to feel like I’m on somewhat solid ground in my industry. Today I want to tackle a few of the things that have worked for me, and ask for your suggestions of what you’ve done to address situations as they arise.

A few of the things we can expect to encounter as women on our musical journey:

  • Dismissal/Gaslighting
  • Being interrupted frequently/not being allowed to complete thoughts
  • Distrust or Disbelief in our level of competence and abilities
  • Being patronized/belittled
  • Expected to do a group or studio’s emotional labor
  • Sexualization
  • Harassment/Assault

Some of these are of course more scarring than others, but all can leave a lasting impression on us that is often easy to internalize. I know for many years I struggled to see what I had accomplished and what I was capable of because I had written attitudes about female performers deep into my musical DNA. I had to work very hard to unpack & unlearn certain behaviors, and there are still many ways to improve.

I want to pass on to all generations of young female musicians, and especially up and coming young performers, a few ways to get out of the cycle of keeping quiet and feeling like it must be your fault or that it’s just the way it is. It starts by acknowledging not only  your own skills but also how you want to grow as a musician and how you want to get there. We’re not perfect, no matter how much we practice, and that’s a good thing. There can always be something new to learn, and we can also be proud of what we can do.

Disclaimer: These steps are intended for offenses outside of the realm of physical harassment/assault. If you’ve experienced something like that, you have every right to take that information to the proper authorities.

Step 1: Don’t Internalize. Take Notes. Talk it Over.

You’re at a gig/in rehearsal/at class and someone says something that strikes you in a weird way. You’re not sure if you just got patronized or dismissed in some subtle way, and you don’t want to say anything about it just yet. That’s okay! When you get a chance, jot down the situation and how you felt about it. Or call a friend you trust and relay it, and see what they say. It might just be enough to put you on guard for the next time it happens, so you can start to notice a pattern.

Step 2: Ask why

You’ve definitely heard something kind if icky directed at you this time. One of the best ways to immediately address a sexist joke or comment is to ask for clarification. I’ll use an example from my past that I didn’t address in the moment, and speculate how I could have handled it with a question.

In my new lab band at UNT (I think it was the 5 O’Clock) one semester, the TA running the band gave us a chart that featured the two bass trombonists. I was playing 5th. We read through it and it was okay- a few mistakes and the other bass (a guy) and I traded a few section where we each equally got a little turned around, but we never got lost. Once we’d finished, the TA solemnly looked us all up and down and then stated “I believe in the masculinity of this band. If you don’t have a pair, grow a pair.”

This was clearly directed at me for…not reading perfectly? Seeming unconfident? Existing? Even though the other player and I equally messed up in the reading. I was angry, but I didn’t say anything. Afterward I and  the other two women in the band approached the chair of the jazz department and reported the incident. The TA was forced to apologize to us, but other than that, nothing really happened to change his behavior. He was just more careful about what he said.

Today’s Lauren definitely would have piped up in that moment. “What do you mean by that, sir?” “Can you say that in a different way?” “I beg your UNBELIEVABLE PARDON?!?” Usually, when someone is called out for saying something questionable, they’ll have to reconsider their words and actions. It may mean they apologize or rethink immediately. They may double-down, in which case you have more ammo to take to some of the later stages in this blog. But usually, you can call someone out and they’ll backtrack. Now, in a perfect world, you, the female performer, wouldn’t be the only one to say anything, but you’d have male colleagues that objected to the incident as well. Men reading this, speak up. This is really your problem to fix.

Step 3: Talk in Private

If you feel comfortable talking alone to the person who’s offended you, arrange to do it. Take your notes from the various encounters and be prepared to speak calmly and rationally about how you feel, but don’t be afraid to be a little fired up if need be. People are more likely to see eye-to-eye with you if you speak in person. One word of caution- don’t go overboard exaggerating your own faults or mistakes (I know because I do this). Have confidence in yourself. Think about what they say when you’re in a car accident: Don’t admit fault at the scene. If someone is truly and intentionally biased against you they will use that as ammo to knock you down again later. Been there, experienced that. Just state what you’ve heard said/what actions were taken and how you feel that might be inappropriate or how it has affected you. I always ask to be treated with agency, to be seen as someone with valid motivations and ambitions: i.e. the default way we treat men in our society.

Step 4: Say No 

Similar to the situation in step 3, be able to turn down a suggestion, comment, or opportunity that you feel puts you in a bad light or place. Someone might suggest you wear something more sultry at a gig, and whether you would or not, that’s not their place to comment. You can say, “I know how to dress myself” or “No, I’m not comfortable with you suggesting that.” Clap back if you need to. I’m not the strongest sight-reader (although I’m not terrible) and there have been a few occasions where someone’s come swooping in to ask me if I know what I did wrong. I’ve developed a pretty good script of “Hey, I screwed up, and it’ll be right the next time, but I don’t need you to explain music to me” that usually makes my point for me.

Just saying ‘…nah’ to something you don’t feel is right is not going to jeopardize your career. You don’t need to put yourself in situations where you’re put upon or looked down on. There are better, more equitable opportunities for you out there.

Step 5: Escalate it

Ok, so nothing’s worked, and you’re pretty sure the behavior directed at you violates some rule of the establishment, job, or just basic human decency. Is there someone above that you can talk to? At school, it’s your departmental or school advisor, or a conflict center. On the gig it might be the band leader (if the band leader is not the perpetrator) or the person who hired you. Whoever it might be, schedule a meeting and prepare your notes. Just like in the private conversation above, be calm and insistent that you think something is wrong. Offer some solutions that might work for you if you can see them. Follow up on the meeting; take it from experience, sometimes they will listen to you sympathetically but hope that you’ll go away after that having ‘therapized’ your problem.

Step 6: Spread the Word

Ah, my favorite step, the ‘burn it all down’ moment. Higher ups have not been helpful and the issue is not going away. It’s time to ORGANIZE. Find your community and see if other people have stories that relate to yours about your harasser or situation. There might be someone with some legal experience who can advise or direct. There might be a public or private forum you can use to document your tale and get the word out that someone is behaving badly. And again here: Don’t internalize. It’s likely at this point people will say some pretty nasty things to you or insinuate that you are somehow responsible. Again, this is NOT YOU. This is an endemic, societal struggle that men and women alike have to fight. You are doing your part to further the success and recognition of women in the music industry.

What other ways have you addressed a bias while on a gig or other situation? What’s worked and what didn’t? Share in the comments!

2 Replies to “Women’s History Month: Ways to Address Bias or Sexism on the Gig”

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