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The Only Woman in the Room: Pro7ect on gendered roles in creative spaces

According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, female representation has barely budged in the past decade. Only around 12.7% of songwriters and 21.8% of artists were women from 2012 to 2021. And behind the scenes? A measly 2.8% of producers were women. In this month’s Session Notes blog, ‘The Only Woman in the Room, Pro7ect Songwriting Retreats founder and songwriter Lisa Fitzgibbon delves into the dark arts of gendered roles and lived experiences in these creative spaces.

In my 30-year career as a recording and touring singer-songwriter, and music producer, I’ve found myself in all sorts of spaces. Studios, rehearsal rooms, tour buses, concert halls, backstage band rooms, rehearsal spaces, mastering suits, garages, bedroom studios, churches and even lady’s loos (for those quick vocal warmups). Often, I’m the only woman in the room (lady’s loo’s excluded) as the majority of these professional spaces are managed, occupied, and run by men.

I’ve collaborated with some incredibly talented folks along the way, both male and female. My long-time musical sister Jane Griffiths (violin/viola in the PowerFolk Quartet) will testify that for the first 3 albums we made together we were the only women in the majority of the rooms we worked in.

There is a lot of focus ATM on equal opportunities for women in the music industry, and this got me thinking… how has this shaped my, and my musical sisters, creative journeys?

Even at prestigious events like the Grammys, where you'd hope to see a diverse line-up, only about 13.6% of nominees over the past decade were women. These numbers just aren't adding up, are they? Despite occasional fluctuations, the overall trend remains disappointingly stagnant.

So, why does this matter? Well, it's not just about numbers – it's about representation and opportunity. It's about ensuring that women have a seat at the table and a voice in shaping the future of music.

Personally, I’ve mostly had good experiences as the ‘only woman in the room’ and I feel like I’ve been both lucky, and discerning, about who I choose to work with in these spaces where the magic happens. Having said that, I have had some real car-crashes where communication has broken down and the session, or gig, has suffered due to, what could be perceived as sexist behaviour.

Like the time I was dismissed by an engineer during my soundcheck at the famous Hebdon Bridge Trades Club. When I asked for a particular EQ on my FOH vocals he told me that I should “focus on the singing, little lady, and leave the mix to me”. Mmmm… I had to breathe deeply before having a calm, quiet word with said engineer basically telling him to mix my sound the way I want it mixed or I’d give him £20 to spend at the bar and we would perform unplugged in the round on the floor of the venue. Brrrrr!!! Why do I need to explain to a total stranger that I have worked live for over 15 years and have done a sound engineering degree so that I know exactly what kind of EQ, reverb, I want on MY vocal? Beggars belief.

I’ve asked some of my female comrades about their experiences of being the ‘only woman in the room’.

Jane Griffiths is a violin/viola, session artist, published author, Oxford University Press music editor and my long-time musical partner in The PowerFolk Quartet:

“Having worked as a professional musician for 25 years, there have been countless occasions where I've been the only woman in the room, and that has sometimes been pretty daunting. When you're young and starting out, it's really hard to have the confidence to express your views about something and, if you do, you run the risk of being ignored or dismissed. In one particularly recording session in which I was improvising a part, the artiste started talking about the 'colour' he wanted me to play before we'd even nutted out the notes. When I asked if we could figure out the part first and expression later, he turned to the engineer and called me a 'diva' and suggested I be sacked!

Fortunately such situations have been relatively rare. Now I'm middle-aged and much more confident about what I do, I'm not afraid to hold my own. I have had many positive experiences 'being the only girl in the room', with my skills and input respected and valued. I now understand that women being dismissed as 'difficult' is pretty standard defensive behaviour from men who know less than we do, which makes it a lot easier to ignore (although preferably we wouldn't have to deal with it all).”

Lina Horner, Pro7ect alumnus, artist, songwriter, musician, lecturer:

“I’ve had many experiences being the only woman in the room. One of the things that annoys me the most is when I’ve pitched an idea that no one seems to hear and five minutes later a man in the group says the same thing to which the rest respond "yeah, what a great idea, let’s do it!"

And some words of advice from our very own Indi Brodley, Pro7ect head engineer, music producer, National Theatre sound engineer, video editor, musician:

“Often you can’t do anything in the moment to change the gender balance so be a boss. Knowing who you are, and your skillset can go a long way and don’t over question things in your mind. Have confidence in your ability and know you’re in that room for a reason. Read the room and know your place; when to contribute, when to listen and when to collaborate.”

So, what can you do? These stats and experiences are not going to change overnight, but we need to make sure that we are showing up, and aligning ourselves with artists and organisations that promote and lobby for healthy gender balance in the music industry.

You can sign up to the F-List directory of female musicians working in the UK. They help women musicians to overcome structural barriers by facilitating training and providing profile and professional opportunities: https://thef-listmusic.uk

You can attend a Pro7ect Residential Songwriting Retreat and get real-time experience in writing teams lead by male and female producers: https://www.pro7ect.com/apply

You can join the MPG (Music Producers Guild) and enjoy the benefits if their community whilst boosting the female professional stats: https://mpg.org.uk

Help Musicians have a page dedicated to organisations that are supporting womens music practices including GIRL GRIND UK, and Scottish Women Inventing Music (SWIM):

https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/organisations-supporting-women-in-music

Award winning music producer Catherine Marks recently spoke about this in a Guardian interview, saying the problem “isn’t about a lack of women being interested, willing to work hard or having the right kind of personality to work in this industry. It’s about encouraging them all to come through.”

About Pro7ect:

Pro7ect is the UK’s premier residential songwriting retreat, based at Rockfield Studios in Wales. Pro7ect offers artists, musicians, songwriters and producers the unique opportunity to work with internationally respected music producers at our events.

Apply today for our next Residential Songwriting Retreats: (limited places available) at: www.pro7ect.com.

Our next events:

Residential: 16th – 20th July 2024 - £1795

Fee includes four nights’ accommodation (twin share), three writing days and all meals, studios, and equipment.

Masterclass: 20th July 2023: 10am - 5pm - £225.

The price includes studio, equipment, producer fees and lunch.
Applicants do not need to have any previous songwriting experience to attend the Masterclasses.

To find out more visit www.pro7ect.com

@pro7ectmusic