Picture the scene. You’re on the dance floor in a dimly lit club. All around you, people sway in unison, lasers illuminate euphoric faces, the DJ drops another track, triggering a frenzy of head-nodding. The partygoers are evenly split between men and women, as are the bar staff, but in the DJ booth it’s different. Pale, skinny men strut behind the decks as the crowd stares at them blankly. Behind them, a gaggle of girls jostle for attention. Passing the DJs their drinks, rolling their cigarettes, rifling through their record bags. Does this sound familiar? It does to me because, for a time in my 20s, I was that girl.
As a lover of dance music, I became a lover of DJs. There were doomed liaisons with beard-scratching musos whose vinyl collections and beat-matching prowess would make my inner music geek go weak at the knees. Often tracks that I had discovered would make their way onto set lists, but I never got the credit. If I was lucky, I might be given the honour of running the door at a party — proving my worth by standing in the cold for hours, clipboard in hand, snarling at those who weren’t on the list.
Looking back, I can see how sexist this scenario is. I didn’t allow inequality to permeate any other aspects of my life — I have always fought hard to be an equal partner in work and love — so why, in a club setting, was this ok? Why did I never learn to DJ myself and take centre stage? The answer is that it never entered my mind that I could. Nobody offered to teach me. There were no skilled girls to learn from, few female role models and the last thing you wanted was to look stupid in a room full of competing male egos. “All the friends I used to buy records with were male and all my friends, bar one, who were DJs were male,” says Radio 1 presenter and DJ Annie Mac. “I never saw a woman DJ in the clubs I went to.”
The traditional assumption in clubland is that the girls are there to look pretty, while the boys do the serious work of spinning records. There are exceptions to this rule, but even those women who have broken through still have to fight against stereotypes. Glasgow-based DJ and producer Nightwave, aka Maya Medvesek, admits she feels pressure to hide her femininity: “The old-school conditioning of having to dress a certain way to be 'taken seriously' is still around, and there will always be some idiot claiming you're using your looks, or worse, sexual favours, to get places,” she says.
The upper echelons of the industry are overwhelmingly male. There were no women featured in last year’s Forbes list of the world’s 12 highest-paid DJs and next to none in Billboard’s Annual Power List of DJs and Execs. This lack of box office power is reflected in a study by the dance music website, Thump, which revealed that in 2016 only 17% of headliners at electronic music festivals were female. Today, dance music seems a tougher career choice for women than other patriarchal professions such as the law, where women make up 30% of high court judges; the civil service, where women occupy 40% of top roles; and even finance, where the number of women on boards stands at an estimated 23%.
This disparity is especially jarring because dance music subculture has a long association with diversity and political struggle. House music was born in the late 1970s as the soundtrack to Chicago’s gay, black party scene. It was radical and helped break down racial, sexual and gender barriers. In the UK, the early '90s rave scene was defined by its antiestablishment values and slogans such as “Peace Love Unity Respect”. But gender equality has failed to follow that initial spirit of inclusion; today’s clubland is heavily commercialised and male-dominated.
“There are not enough females at the top of the food chain,” says Mac. “More female promoters and bookers would make a big difference to who you see DJing at the weekend.” German label head, DJ and producer Anja Schneider agrees: “The number of female artists is not as low as it once was, but the big festivals and important clubs are still not booking so many women. There is a [fear of] risking something from the big promoters.”
It’s not just behind the decks that women are underrepresented; they also struggle to be taken seriously in the studio. According to a statistic on the website of the Women's Audio Mission, a non-profit dedicated to helping women in audio production, only 5% of recognised music producers are women. This figure is an estimate made by the Women in Audio Committee of the Audio Engineering Society back in 2000. Today, WAM believes that number could be even smaller, based on attendance at Audio Engineering Society conventions.
“There is this default opinion that women are unable to produce themselves. Which is wrong on so many levels,” says Annie Mac. “I know successful male producers who have their music engineered and sometimes fully produced for them. It’s unfair that women get hung out to dry for working with people to make music.” This retro attitude endures despite the work of prolific producers such as Schneider, who has 53 tracks to her name, and the emergence of fresh talents like London-based producer Maya Jane Coles, whose soulful productions shot her to fame in 2010.
So what can be done to make dance music less pale, male, stale? Do we need to plan protests outside fabric and insist on quotas at festivals? Or should we junk the term “female DJ” and focus on promoting talent regardless of gender? Researching this piece, some artists, including Coles and techno star Nina Kraviz, chose to stay silent. According to their respective publicists, Coles, whose new album launch is imminent, would rather focus on what she sees as "key topics", while Kraviz would rather fight sexism by setting an example of success — not only does she DJ but she also runs two labels and hosts radio shows and events. “I think we're all sick of talking about it to be honest,” says Nightwave. “There's not much we can do — we need men to speak out, agents and managers to support talent and promoters to book us. That’s it.”
Still, there are signs of imminent progress. A handful of women-only networking groups and booking agencies have emerged, aimed at championing female talent. The founders of organisations such as DiscWoman and She Said So seem to grasp that remaining silent just allows patriarchal attitudes to persist. fabric is hosting a series of workshops, starting in May, aimed at teaching women production and promotion skills. But more women need to speak openly about the struggles they face. “I'm in my 30s now and I've chosen my career over motherhood… A lot of DJs have kids but they are mostly dads,” says Nightwave.
Turning the tide of sexism takes more than just individual success stories. It needs a collective approach by women in music worldwide. “Female DJ” might be an annoying label for those who wish sexism would just go away, but if we don’t draw attention to gender, women will remain the exception behind the decks and in the boardroom. “You have to fight for your rights and speak loudly so your voice is heard,” says Schneider. “And also handle the disappointment that in this so-called freedom and equality music business… a lot of traditional thinking still exists.”