There’s been an awful lot of talk this year about “women in dance music”, the growth of female representation in the industry making the discussion fashionable, though perhaps not as beneficial as we are asked to believe. In fact the weakness of the current “women in dance music” dialogue has been made all too clear recently, with the latest DJ Mag issue on ‘Pioneers of the last 25 Years’ - released only a couple of months down the line from their ‘Women in Dance Music’ special - featuring a grand total of zero of the women they had lauded and applauded three issues prior. By comparing the two issues, it’s clear that their efforts at positive discrimination – while very well-intended - actually served to reinforce perceptions of a glass ceiling, and revealed the separatist standard by which women are too often judged in this industry, even when they are being singled out for praise.
Despite a lingering gender gap, the reality is that in the last few years the number of women excelling in all corners of the dance music industry has skyrocketed exponentially. Don’t take your sounding from the safe and repetitive waters of male-dominated major festival line-ups or mainstream DJ rankings, but look to the cutting edge of clubland to see where we’re headed - and you’ll find a rapidly increasing amount of women throwing down heat in basements the world over, joining in their thousands the small but talented group of females who have been at it for decades.
The reasons for this change aren’t singular: alongside global attitude changes toward women in the workplace and a hugely increased mainstream interest in dance music in recent years, the communities, programmes and media coverage dedicated exclusively to supporting and nurturing female electronic artists and industry workers have certainly played a role in bringing about this change. But with such positive progress showing no sign of slowing, is positive discrimination still the appropriate approach? Women in the industry deserve all the respect they get, but they are no longer lonely pioneers fighting for a foot in the door, and our dialogue needs to catch up accordingly.
“I’m actually surprised the gender issue is still talked about like it was when I first entered the industry fifteen years ago,” says Clare Dickins, director of Clare Dickins PR, which boasts Alan Fitzpatrick, Anja Schneider and Adam Beyer on its books. “From my point of view, we can achieve anything we set out to in this industry.” Dickins’ own field is a prime example of the prevalent female influence in the business sector of dance music. The gender balance in PR is equal, if not weighted towards women, and any journalist can tell you that the power a good PR agent wields in this industry can be formidable, the PR camp often considered to have poached the title from music journalists as the new ‘gatekeepers’ of the industry, strictly controlling how and what information about an artist is passed on to the public. So to claim that women are not well represented in positions of power in this industry would be to disregard a lot of very influential women in this field at the very least.
For Dickins, and many others, the current dialogue on what it means to be a woman in this industry can feel decidedly stale. When I requested comment from one of Dickins' most successful artists, Anja Schneider, she politely declined, stating that after so many years she simply has no more words on the issue. Spinning since the early ‘90s with no sign of slowing, one of techno’s finest, Monika Kruse, also expressed fatigue when fielding questions on the gender issue. “I don’t like these questions,” she admits.“ ‘How is it as a girl DJ in a male dominated world?’ ‘Why are there so few girls DJing?’ are questions I hear in almost every interview.”
It’s not merely the quantity of gender-based questions that puts some women off talking about the issue in the media. For many female artists and businesswomen their gender simply hasn’t been a defining aspect of their career experience, and the assumption that every female identifies and wants to discuss herself within gender confines can be frustrating, if not detrimental. “I feel the only barrier to success is ourselves,” says Dickins. “When there is too much talk about gender, there’s the risk of developing a complex that there are limits to the success we can achieve.”
This is by no means a call for unequivocal silence on the issue; women with stories of inequality and discrimination, or who identify strongly based on their gender and want to speak out about it should feel comfortable to do so. But for so many other women behind the decks, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be questioned in the same way we would their male counterparts; it’s up to journalists to discern whether it’s a topical subject for their talent, not define their experience in this way without permission.
The “women in dance music” tag is reaffirmed repeatedly through media features - the February DJ Mag issue of that name merely one of the most high profile of a growing cohort. Though these articles are a well-intended celebration of talent, by grouping together artists based on their gender as opposed to their music styles, and celebrating their involvement by virtue of their being female, presented always within the context of other females, we are setting these women up to be considered and judged in a different spectrum - and therefore unequally - to their male coworkers. In the 21st century western world there’s something unintentionally patronising about celebrating an artist’s achievements especially because she is a woman. How much more respectful and productive to simply feature those worthy regularly, rather than as an exception, and alongside men as well as women, to be celebrated and judged equally? DJ Mag’s praises lose their meaning when, given the opportunity to reaffirm them in the same context as male DJs, those same women are mentioned exactly nowhere. Whether a woman deserves a slot among the ‘25 Pioneers’ is beside the point – the DJ Mag team must have painstakingly developed the list with artists they truly believe to be the best – but their exclusion brings to light an insincerity in the previous women’s issue – and an obvious example of positive discrimination reinforcing differences. It’s clear DJ Mag has the same goal as most of us talking about this issue: equality, but like so many contemporary publications, it stumbles over the best way to achieve it.
This kind of separatist positive discrimination is not exclusive to the media. In recent years there has been a steady growth in female-only DJ and production courses, competitions and club line-ups, all with the goal of encouraging women to become more involved in the industry, often with success. But should the goal be merely to build up numbers? Is fighting a boy’s club with a girl’s club really our best shot? Kruse admits she would not have taken advantage of female-only initiatives had they been available when she was new to the scene. “An all-female night announced as such is making it worse. Why should I want to be seen as something different? It is about our music and not about our sex.” When Sankeys nightclub franchise owner David Vincent set up a female-only DJ competition in Ibiza earlier this year for his party series Sankeys Sabados, the announcement was full of high rhetoric about supporting women in pushing through the glass ceiling. And yet, he undercut his own words by choosing to book a male DJ as the returning headliner. If the project was about pushing through the glass ceiling - surely it was crucial to book a female headliner, to acknowledge there are many women at the top of the tier in this industry, not merely working their way up, with help.
Despite positive progress, sexism is still an issue for many women navigating their way through the music scene, but examples of discrimination in dance music are representative not of an industry specific problem, but a universal one. “When I started there were no other female DJs in the club scene,” Kruse reflects, “so at first people did not take me seriously - ‘for a girl you are a great DJ’, is what I heard very often.” This familiar ‘for a girl’ caveat has shadowed women in the workplace for decades, and is perpetuated by positive discrimination which seeks to separate and judge based on gender. With equal opportunity, equal treatment and the attendant right of equal pay, however, women in music have the freedom and respect to prove that, when judged by the same standards as men, they are perfectly capable of excelling.