Do women need to ‘step up’? Grammy leader’s comment sparks debate on gender

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TORONTO — Canadian singer Alessia Cara was the only woman to win in one of the major categories at this year’s Grammy Awards, and less than a quarter of the 84 trophies handed out Sunday went to either a woman or group that included a woman.

But it was backstage comments from the Recording Academy’s president that really inflamed critics who saw this year’s awards show as more proof that a pervasive gender gap exists in the industry.

“I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on an executive level,” Neil Portnow told reporters in the press room after the show on Sunday.

“(They need) to step up because I think they would be welcome.”

Suggesting that women aren’t “stepping up” in the music industry frustrates Aerin Fogel, organizer of Toronto-based feminist arts celebration Venus Fest. She’s not exactly surprised by mainstream industry sentiment that suggests blame lies with women themselves.

“In a way what he’s (saying) represents the larger issues in the music industry — and in most industries,” Fogel said.

“There are real inherent challenges for women to be moving through these structures in the same way as men.”

Grammy winner Barbara Hannigan didn’t necessarily face a lack of opportunities as a woman when she first started in the music industry. As a soprano, the Nova Scotia singer only competed for jobs with other women.

“Then when I became a conductor all the sudden I was in a male-dominated field and I started getting all these questions about my gender,” said Hannigan, who picked up a Grammy for classical solo vocal album at this year’s awards.

“I don’t want to be considered a female conductor, I want to just be a musician. As soon as someone puts ‘female’ in front of my job they immediately change the focus from my work to my gender, which I find kind of frustrating.”

Hannigan said that while her priorities are focused on creating music of the highest calibre, she still acknowledges that she was raised in a world where female conductors were put in a box.

“For some reason it seemed absolutely appropriate for a woman to conduct a choir but not an orchestra,” she said.

“I don’t know why that is. All I know is that I never saw that.”

While she doesn’t dwell on her gender, Hannigan recognizes she is among a rare set of female conductors. She was reminded of the fact during a recent performance for a couple of thousand teenagers, many of whom had little exposure to classical music.

“That’s amazing because they’re going to sit in the hall and they’re not going to find it strange to see a woman on the podium,” she said.

“I think it’s important to have a dialogue. What’s even more important is to look at what I’m doing and how I do it.”

 

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David Friend, The Canadian Press