If you turn on the radio — especially a rock station — and hear a female voice, you're lucky. It's 2017 and most musicians on the radio or climbing the Billboard charts are men. Music has a gender gap problem.
"I remember walking into a major label office and being asked, "What do I for the band?" said Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event over the phone. The questioner was wondering if she was someone's girlfriend, or perhaps with management. Her answer? "No, I'm in the band."
Bulbrook's anecdote isn't rare. Women across the music industry report sexism on a scale ranging from Kesha's sexual abuse allegations, where she alleged her producer took advantage of her on numerous occasions, to simply getting passed up for promotions.
"Women have largely been relegated to support roles in the music industry, in very gendered ways," said music historian Evelyn McDonnell. "Men get the powerful, prestigious, and lucrative A&R jobs, while women do the vital but secondary work of publicity."
While it's true that more women are breaking the glass ceiling, McDonnell explained that "they remain few and far between."
Jasmine Lywen-Dill, who now works in publicity at Warner, has experienced this type of underlying sexism. She remembers starting out at a music management company where she was offered an office manager position. An opportunity to be more heavily involved in the day to day affairs of artists was given to a male co-worker with the same level of experience. She was careful to explain that she thought the situation was less an active attempt to hold her back and more of an implicit bias in effect.
"I think they think, 'Okay, there needs to be this position, maybe one of the women in the office can do it,'" she said. "That's who they lean toward for this kind of work."
To her it was a singular event, but the practice is widespread.
While scant empirical research exists on the gender gap in the music industry, the charts speak for themselves. On any given week, only about 20 out of the Billboard 200 artists are female.
This number gets even lower when you isolate just the rock or alternative charts where there is just about one woman on the radio to every ten men.
"I think there is this expectation that alternative and rock are somehow more enlightened than other pop forms – that they are, in fact, alternatives to the norm," said McDonnell. "But I think that in 2016, they are actually less progressive than hip hop, urban, pop, and possibly even country."
"Rock formats have become man caves, places for ur-males to retreat," she said. "These genres tend to award artists who follow gender norms – women who sing softly and sweetly and men who growl and shout – and to poorly integrate musicianship roles, along both race and gender lines."
"If you think about what alternative rock is, apparently it's not a female voice," said Bulbrook.
While she sees many talented female artists locally, most don't progress beyond small venues. "As you graduate beyond the local level, fewer and fewer women are making it in the alt rock world," she said. "It's a steep drop off."
When she goes to festivals with The Airborne Toxic Event there's usually, at maximum, five other female artists on the bill. "We all know each other," she said.
Several factors exclude women from advancing at the same rate as men in music. Pointing to the lack of female voices on the radio, Bulbrook said that it's about, "how much market saturation you have so that you have the presence to sell concert tickets."
Promoters won't book bands that can't sell enough tickets to be profitable. Bands have a hard time selling tickets if they can't develop a following. Radio's still important for that.
"If that's the dividing factor and women aren't included," Bulbrook said, "then that translates into a huge number of opportunities that are just not available to women."
While critics point to huge pop stars as a sign of music's inclusivity, mega stars like Taylor Swift and Beyonce tend to skew public perception to think music is more inclusive than it really is.
The phenomenon is called availability bias.
Think of it as a shortcut your mind takes when you're trying quickly to think of an example or defend a concept. Beyonce and Swift are everywhere, so it's easy to assume women are everywhere: but they're not.
"These are extremely talented, smart women who have set the terms of their own fame in ways that should not be underestimated," said McDonnell before adding, "But, they are exceptions, who prove the norm."
Bulbrook and Lywen-Dill are looking to change that.
Last year, Bulbrook joined talent buyer Kyle Wilkerson of the Bootleg Theater to host the first ever Girlschool Field Day Weekend, a three-day festival featuring a line up of completely female bands.
"We didn't want it to be gimmicky," said Wilkerson.
He thought of the idea after he noticed a surge of great musicianship in acts that just so happened to be female.
"When I do shows at Bootleg," he said, "sometimes I'll do an all-female night. But I'm not going to give it a name. I'm just putting together bands I really like."
When Bulbrook approached him about the idea of last year's festival "her brain child and my brain child mixed together."
The festival was by all measures a success, with the first night completely selling out. Plans for this year's show are looking even brighter with big names like Chelsea Wolfe and The Bird and the Bee at the top of the lineup and a more robust panel that will hopefully include women sound engineers.
Last year's panel, which featured people ranging from Kat Corbett of KROQ to Bulbrook herself, was a hit. "Education is just as important as music," said Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, who was mentored by strong females in his early music career, said he felt it was important for more women to take leading roles across the industry— including in the overwhelmingly male areas of sound technology and lighting design.
"If you don't really see people doing it," he said "you're not going to think it's an option."
He hopes the festival, "made some sort of an impact for females so they feel they can go into any room and be treated the same way."
Reach Staff Reporter Jolene Latimer here.