Towards greater gender equality


Women are underrepresented on the Swiss music scene. But we have hardly any statistics. If we are ever going to correct this imbalance, we need facts.

Andrea Zimmermann - 2019-10-21
Towards greater gender equality - As the pilot study of the RFV shows, the proportion of women involved on the Bernese pop scene between 2008 and 2017 was only 10% (source: RFV).
As the pilot study of the RFV shows, the proportion of women involved on the Bernese pop scene between 2008 and 2017 was only 10% (source: RFV).

In 2018, “RFV”, the network for the promotion of pop and music, published a pilot study entitled “The proportion of women in bands in Basel”. Its conclusions were sobering: only 10% of the roughly 3,000 musicians active in Basel bands are women. Nor is this situation merely a snapshot of the current situation. For 10 years now, pop music in Basel has been firmly in the hands of men.

This survey of Basel is one of the few studies that can provide reliable data on gender issues in the Swiss music business. Other appraisals and assessments have often been less systematic in their approach – such as when the media count the number of female headline acts in a festival season – or they have simply remained unpublished, such as the bachelor thesis by Luz Gonzales on women active in the Bernese club culture (2018)

A call for empirical data

Although initial efforts have begun in recent months1,we are still lacking any sound, empirical survey of the gender balance on the Swiss music scene – a survey that could provide a comprehensive view of the status quo in different genres2. Its data would have to be analysed professionally in order for us to be able to develop appropriate funding instruments and strategies. 

These statistics are from Helvetiarockt – the Swiss coordination office and networking platform for women musicians in jazz, pop and rock. They clearly show the current imbalance on the Swiss music scene (source: Helvetiarockt).

In order to understand the current situation better, along with its causes and contexts, we need to do more than just gather statistical data. Above and beyond this, we have to start listening carefully to the different participants themselves, in order to learn more about those moments in their biographies when important decisions were made for or against their career in music, and in order to decipher what can contribute to success or failure. Without this biographical perspective, any analysis will fall short. This is something that I wish to elaborate upon below, taking the gender pay gap as a specific example.

The image of the male genius 

Is genius masculine? History provides enough images to let us think so.

As part of the debate about gender roles, there have been repeated calls for fees and salaries to be made public. Making a survey of these figures would undoubtedly be an important step, and would make visible what is in all probability a blatant gender pay gap in the music business3. But in order to help us understand how this imbalance occurs, I should like to consider the broader context from the perspective of gender research. This is because our image of the “artist” is oriented along gender norms that are associated with “masculinity”.

As has already been demonstrated in other artistic disciplines4, we can sketch out the general picture of the “artist” as follows (though it is admittedly a little exaggerated): the artist is a genius whose works all emerge from his person and his creativity. He is passionate about his artistic oeuvre, and ultimately subordinates everything in his life to it. Independence and autonomy are core conditions for his success in art, while his charisma gives him authority and the power of self-assertion. All these characteristics are peculiar to “masculinity” as it has emerged in the context of the bourgeois gender order. 

Obsolete role expectations

In this picture of the male artist, it is not difficult to recognise a “life plan” in which social relationships and family play only a subordinate role. We know from studies on the compatibility of family and career that it is still mostly men who fall back on traditional arrangements that provide them with maximum room for manoeuvre. However, when women surmount all obstacles in order to embark on a life as an artist, they overall tend to believe that their choices are incompatible with having a partner and a family. If we assume that the norms sketched out above continue to determine our expectations of an artist, then they must surely also influence how the arts and art funding are organised. 

To come back to my original example: what do these circumstances mean with regard to wages and fees? “Whoever earns better has bargained better”. That’s what one might assume. And in an environment that is implicitly oriented on masculine norms, it might well be far more difficult for someone to succeed if at first glance they don’t conform to those same norms. This is why funding institutions repeatedly fall back on providing training sessions to give women the necessary negotiating skills and the will to succeed. In essence, they aim to “fix the woman”.

Only Germany can provide statistics for us to assess the gender pay gap on the music and cultural scene. Here we see the annual average wage in euros of men and women in the German social insurance scheme for artists, in the professional categories “word”, “visual arts”, “music” and “performing arts” for the year 2014 (source: Darstellung der Künstlersozialversicherung Deutschland).


“Fix the structure”, don’t “fix the woman”

But what about placing our emphasis instead on establishing transparent criteria for a just wage? Then payment would be less dependent on how skilfully artists can argue for more money. Perhaps it would then be necessary, not simply to confirm a deficit in negotiating skills among women, but to rethink the very structures and fundamentals of the negotiating process. We should rather “fix the structure”!5

What’s more, given the current challenges involved in trying to combine an artistic career with caring for a family, we need to find solutions in the music business so that women can earn a just wage when they take a family-related break. As long as it’s mostly women in our society who take on childcare and family responsibilities, and as long as artistic careers remain in line with the (masculine) ideals sketched out above, the gender pay gap will inevitably keep getting wider over the course of a career. 

What is Gender Gap? (in German only)


Birds of a feather flock together

In this negotiating process, a role is also played by criteria of which the negotiating partners might not be aware. For example, the negotiating partners and decision-makers are often men, and it is still easier for them to identify with young men. This act of recognition makes them sympathetic towards those young men, who are often provided with greater support as a result. This mechanism, whose impact goes beyond matters of mere gender, also prevails in larger networks. Right from the start, many men enjoy more support than women, and this ultimately can be an important factor in their careers. In this sense, one might even say: “Whoever earns better, has the better networks”. 

This surely means that initiatives such as “Helvetiarockt”, “SOFIA Support Of Female Improvising Artists” and “Les Belles de Nuit” are significant, along with those funding measures that strengthen networks among women and between the genders. In order to promote young, female talent, mentoring programmes are important. We need to bring potential women role models together with those whom they can inspire, because mentoring them can help them to make the right choices at decisive moments in their lives. In short, success in negotiating is perhaps not just proof of individual merit and of the talent of the artist: it also depends on many aspects that must be borne in mind if the music scene is going to become more equitable for both genders.

The Female* Music Lab Song Sketches are one of many funding instruments of “Helvetiarockt” – the Swiss coordination office and networking platform for women musicians in jazz, pop and rock.


Time to change

There is thus an urgent need for a comprehensive analysis that can provide us with a snapshot of both the music scene and of other cultural disciplines today. Nor may such an analysis rely solely on statistics, for it must demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding of current circumstances. Then issues might emerge that could help cultural funders and the different cultural institutions to start working together to achieve greater equity. 

Together with Pro Helvetia and the Swiss Center for Social Research, we shall be initiating just such a research project at the University of Basel in October 20196. The path to greater gender equality in the music business might still be a long one, and the changes necessary to achieve it will mean embarking on a deep cultural shift that will take a lot of time. But at least the first steps are already being taken. We are on the move.

Frauenstreik 2019: B-Sides Music Festival strikes and claims for equality in the Swiss music business


Dr Andrea Zimmermann is a senior assistant and a postdoc at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Basel. She took her doctorate at the University of Zurich with a thesis focussed on a critique of the gender order in contemporary theatre. She has also lectured in dramaturgy at the Thomas Bernhard Institute of the Mozarteum University in Salzburg since 2015. From October 2019 onwards, she will be heading the research project “Gender relations in the Swiss cultural industry – a pilot study”, which is being funded by Pro Helvetia and CSR.

1 Such as the GRiNM Network Conference 2019: Experiences with Gender and Diversity in Contemporary Music, held in November this year at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK.
2 In this regard, gender is always understood as being linked to further categories of social inequality. Such an intersectional understanding of gender means that the mutual entanglement of racism, classicism and other discriminatory mechanisms is also taken into consideration.
3 This assumption seems reasonable, given the study by the German Cultural Council entitled "Frauen in Kultur und Medien" (“Women in culture and the media”), ed. Gabriele Schulz, Carolin Ries, Olaf Zimmermann, 2016, which found that freelance women artists earn 24 percent less than men. 
4 For example Denis Hänzi: Die Ordnung des Theaters, Bielefeld 2013.
5 This phrase is derived from the US scientist Londa Schiebinger, who researches into gender relations in the natural sciences.
6 As part of the pilot study entitled “Gender relations in the Swiss cultural industry”, we will be working until late 2020 to determine the most important indicators for a comprehensive cultural study and to gather together the data that already exists.