Work in Progress: How Toronto Women Are Fighting Against a Sexist Music Industry

We asked some of the most prominent women in Toronto's music industry what they feel needs to change.

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Mar 9 2016, 3:17pm

The role of women in music has been making headlines in recent months, prompted by a growing sense of exasperation toward longstanding misogynist behaviour and forms of marginalization in the industry. Issues such as the disturbing lack of female nominees for this year’s Juno awards, the nasty legal battle between pop star Kesha and producer Dr. Luke, and Toronto radio station Flow 93.5 FM’s brand makeover that includes firing all of their female DJs, make it clear that the music industry has an enduring issue with gender equality.

According to a 2015 report of 455 women in Ontario’s music industry, women are least likely to work in music production roles (6 percent) and in sales and business development (7 percent), while most work in promotion and marketing (20 percent). Other issues with marginalization exist too: The report suggests that the ethnic composition of the women in Ontario music industry still consists of a majority of whites (89 percent), and that most women live in the Greater Toronto Area (86 percent). While these stats may not include all women in Ontario’s music industry, there are clearly many barriers for women in music, particularly in certain roles and particularly for women of color. But in smaller pockets across the city, there are people changing that.


via Nordicity's 2015 Employment in Ontario’s Music Industry Survey, 2014-15

“I think we're reaching a bit of a breaking point where more people are speaking up, and bad behaviour and lack of diversity is being called out instead of swept under the rug” said Stacey Howchin, founder of the Toronto Women in Music collective, who is one of many individuals and groups fostering women-focused support programs. “I schedule private meet-ups for our members and book speakers to discuss a vast range of topics, including but not limited to: music, labels, songwriting, publishing, production, PR, music videos, music photography, radio, and concerts.” Howchin, who is also an artist and songwriter under the moniker STACEY, runs these groups alongside organizers Nico Elliott of Arts & Crafts, Martha Meredith of For Esme, and Tiffany Ferguson of MuchFACT, hosting meetups in members’ living rooms. “It's a pretty DIY vibe. We also throw women-centred showcases spanning all different genres,” Howchin said.

“We need to have more balance in the curation of women at festivals, showcases, professionals speaking at conferences, and also supporting female label owners and entrepreneurs,” said MuchFACT’s Ferguson, who is also a board member with the networking programs Women in Music Canada. “We need to celebrate and promote female engineers and producers, as well as encourage education on the technical side.” Ferguson is a program manager at MuchFACT, a national funding program that awards grants to Canadian music and film artists so that they can make music videos and promotional content. She grew up in a family of music professionals and has been working in the industry for 13 years, so she understands some of the less acknowledged tools that lead to professional success. “Having access to support systems that mentor and provide professional services and networking is an integral aspect to inspire women,” she added.

Samantha Slattery, founder and executive director of Women in Music Canada has spent over 15 years working in the music industry, from Toronto, LA, and London (UK, not Ontario). She’s worked behind large-scale festivals like Coachella, Virgin Music Festival, WayHome, and more. She’s even had her take at being an artist manager for a few years. It was travelling abroad and “seeing the positive impact similar organizations were having in other cities,” that inspired Slattery to create Women in Music Canada. Slattery is a “glass half full” type person so while she acknowledges that there’s “still tremendous room for improvement,” she argues that the industry is moving in a positive direction. In just 18 months Women in Music Canada became registered as a non-profit organization with 600 members.

“A lot of the change needs to be cultural; both men and women need to be more aware of the enormous positive impact gender equality plays to the health of the industry, not just socially but financially,” said Slattery. She continued, “I feel that connecting people and ideas, supporting growth and development, and conveying knowledge and resources to achieve greater success will start to move the needle on gender equality in the industry.” Much of the work that fosters the music community’s growth towards diversity is ad-hoc curation, happening in smaller venues across the city or online.

One of these is the podcast GYALCAST, which, at first glance, might seem culture-specific and niche. Produced by a seven-woman collective called The Known Unknown (TKU), the podcast helps promote the downtown Toronto party series BAREGYAL. Tika Simone, an artist and fixture in Toronto’s underground hip-hop scene, founded GYALCAST with writer Sajae Elder and her close circle of friends. It now reaches all kinds of people—but often women—online and is three seasons deep. Full of life and firmly rooted in the perspectives of its hosts, who are all women of color, it touches on everything, with topics including friendship, love, sex, politics, celebrities, and music. The first episode discusses the killing of unarmed black Florida teen Trayvon Martin, uncircumcised penises, Mother's Day, and marijuana. They’ve created an uncensored world that’s very Toronto, and features music that always compliments their dialogue.

“There was a void in the city altogether. There wasn’t a space for women of colour to speak openly in our city where we have our own language and way of speaking,” said Simone. While the podcast showcases the city’s long-existent but ignored black heritage and culture, GYALCAST is also a space for self-expression and personal authenticity. “While I was going through the depression, I met various talented women from Toronto,” Simone said. “It’s always funny, but a lot of our conversations were deeper than I’ve had with other women before.” The women host BAREGYAL every two to three months, and they support similar holistic collectives like Talya Macedo’s HERCollective. But Simone and Elder believe there’s a push and pull of progression in the industry, with still more to be done despite all the great things happening in Toronto.

“There are a lot of gatekeepers, which is something that we’ve talked about on the show,” Elder said. “Artists already in the industry or in the status quo are not taking risks and putting different artists in the spotlight. There’s a lot of DIY stuff going on, artists are really figuring out that the major label isn’t always the best answer. Artists are putting themselves on and using digital means.” GYALCAST is showcasing the culture that often goes unnoticed in the mainstream music industry. Elder added, “We really just pick songs that we like, but we are always keeping our ears open to the streets, especially when it comes to female artists. We’re definitely cognizant of these female artists that are doing great things and may not be getting the recognition that they should be.”

The problem is not that quality diverse music doesn’t exist, people like the hosts of GYALCAST argue, but that the standards in which certain voices and genres are recognized or critiqued is unfair. Outlets only recognizing women as musicians in special female-exclusive categories or booking women to fill a quota are also part of the problem. Inclusivity should not be tokenism. Cindy Li, better known as DJ and promoter CL, is someone who shows it is possible to showcase great female talent. Her radio show Work in Progress features only the best female dance producers and airs on Toronto Radio Project.

“I’m not saying this to toot my own horn but it’s really important to me to make my show high-quality,” Li said. “The whole point of doing the show is to dismantle this idea that there aren’t female producers in dance music. When male festival organizers and male writers of publications get called out, like why aren’t there any female artists, they always respond that they don’t look at gender and that they are completely objective and they make their choices on musical output. That’s completely untrue. Everyone has biases that goes beyond the music. There is a boys club culture in dance music.”

If a woman is making music, it’s more pressure for her to be even better so that she’s taken seriously, Li suggested. But that means too often that some shy away from outwardly labelling oneself as a female musician. It’s a challenge either way. Li pointed out that it’s particularly strange people still discriminate for genres like house or dance music that often feature instrumentalization with minimal vocals. When she isn’t producing her radio show which takes hours of Internet digging, Li works a day job in the publishing industry. She also promotes women-led shows under the brand Work in Progress with longtime collaborator Nancy Chen. If a male collaborator doesn’t respect their politics, they won’t book him.

Toronto’s music scene is going through a renaissance, but some of the best artists are still being shut out, as gender politics and inaccessibility are still barriers. That’s why programs and curators like Toronto Women in Music, Women in Music Canada, GYALCAST, and Work in Progress exist. By refusing to wait around, these women are going out and making progress happen.

Ebyan Abdigir is writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.