Women Musicians Tell NPR It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World

Women in rock have come a long way since Joan Jett was told girls don’t play electric guitar. We have guitars made for women, by women. We have girl rock camps. Surely the music world is a friendlier place in this day and age. Right?

Maybe not so much. In March, National Public Radio surveyed more than 700 women musicians, ranging from orchestra conductors to R&B stars like Bettye LaVette. The questions covered everything from instruments and gear to advice given to aspiring women musicians. NPR has posted all of their responses online and unedited under the title “Hey Ladies: Being a Woman Musician Today.” The overall results: The vast majority of women talk about the sexism they face in a still male-dominated music industry, and how it takes hard work and dignity to overcome it.

Lauren Denitzio, who plays guitar and sings for one of my favorite New Jersey punk bands, The Measure [sa], answered the question “Do you think being a woman and a musician is different from being a man and a musician?” with “absolutely.” She continued,

You automatically have to prove yourself far more than a man does and even though people may think they’re not being sexist, most people will give guys the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not they’re a serious musician. Most men assume I play bass instead of guitar and I still get asked if I’m actually IN the band and not just WITH the band…

When we go on tour and I’m regularly the only woman playing an instrument out of four or five bands, still, in 2010, it’s glaringly obvious to me that there’s something stopping most women from being in full-time touring bands. It’s unfortunate but true.

I was excited to see how these women have made it, since my own pipe dream of being a rock star was shattered when I was 15. I definitely attribute sexism: Trying to learn guitar, I encountered bewildered music store clerks and dismissive male friends. With little support, I gave up. (And I had already decided that journalism was just as badass.)

Maybe I wouldn’t have given up so easily if I’d gotten advice from women musicians like Kelly Ogden of The Dollyrots:

When I first met Joan Jett, before we were signed to her label, I asked her about being a woman and doing this and she said to just focus on my craft and be myself. I think that’s really all there is to it. It’s just like anything else you want to do in life, you have do decide you’re going to do it, work really hard and then go.

Many musicians noted that a woman has to be very conscious of how she presents her sexuality. Country artist Gretchen Peters said:

A young woman musician… ought to think long and hard about how she feels about her image, and the possible pressure she might feel from her record company or management to “”be sexy””. This doesn’t concern me from a “morality” standpoint–it bothers me as a feminist, as it undermines the idea that women can be talented, brilliant and successful musicians/songwriters/singers without using their sexuality to get noticed.

Much of the advice is about finding positive support. Solo artist Brandi Carlile said:

The best thing that ever happened to women in music in my opinion is a sense of community. Surround yourself with people who teach and inspire you and you might find the power in numbers. Women can sell tickets, records, and being a rockstar is not a boy’s game.

Damn straight! Kudos to all these women musicians and NPR for such an exhaustive survey.

Watch Brandi Carlile’s video for “The Story”:

ABOVE: Photo from Flickr user Puci. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0


  1. Amy Barnhart says:

    This is absoulutely true. My mother was a working guituarist in the forties. When I was learning guituar at age 7 in '76 she thought that because of the women's rights movement I would have a better experience than she had back then. But it turned out that nothing in guituar had changed. I would consistantly out play the male guituar players but when it came to hiring I was rarely hired and when I was I made half of the pay that the men did. It really ticked my mother off. Even today if I walk into a guituar store they try to sell to my husband assuming that he is the musician, and bless him, he couldn't play a tamborine if it came with an instruciton manuel.

  2. OH it is SUCH a man's man's man's world in music – and the male musicians believe that they are cutting edge, but when it comes to women, they are retro retro retro and they do not care because it leaves them on top, and us, no matter how good, scraping the bottom of the barrel. It is SO hard out here – and you can be great, work like a dog, have chops for days – but if the men don't think you are 'cute' (according to the narrow standards that prevail,) – the producers, the male musicians who are most in the position to hire and fire – then you have a long, STEEP hill to climb, and you better not get tired or insecure, cause you will be battered in soul and spirit. It is about how you look, 90% Show me the brilliant women musicians who are NOT 'babes,' (again by the narrow standards that prevail, which I do not have to explain,) who are 'making it.' You can count them on one hand, if at all. But I, and all us women, know scores of them – brilliant players and creators of many ages. Show me the potbellied, male slobs of every age making it? They are legion. Look too, (if you are thinking classical music and Jazz) – at the profs at colleges – overwhelmingly male.

    And NPR, though this is a good article, and though you do good work – you do not help much on this score. Take a survey of the musicians you showcase and support. You will see. When it IS women, it is ONLY a certain demographic, and I don't have to tell you what demographic that is. The number of older women you do is small, for example. I hope you read this and think. Cause the spirits of women musicians, past and present, are weeping.

  3. (from a males point of view)

    I do find it a bit of a joke, but commercial music itself is a massive joke in my opinion. Personally what I find is that most women who do make it in music do tend to be in the more comericial music scenes. And those are the scenes where looks and image DO MATTER. They want you to look either cool and/or sexy, regardless of being a male or female. If I were to try and get into some generic mainstream rock band it’ll prob be just as hard for me as all you females because I don’t have a rockers image / looks.

    I personally couldn’t care less anyways as I appreciate music for the music itself, and the talent / skill / genius & hard work of the musicians (not their looks) There are plenty of genres where looks don’t matter however I rarely see females even try these genres. Perfect examples are some electronic genres; IDM, Ambient, Experimental, Death Metal, Jazz, Classical etc etc.

    • If you think women only do pop music then you are a clear example of what this article is about. What she is saying is that female artists are playing just as well as and in as many genres as men but you’ve never heard of them. You have to actually look hard for female artists in many genres, but it’s not because they aren’t there. Additionally if they weren’t so discouraged from being in the music business there would be even more women in different genres of music. It’s because they aren’t getting airtime and they get no respect from most men.

  4. Where can we find websites that promote women musicians so our money can go to them more directly?

  5. It’s definitely, exponentially, a man’s world in music. There is most definitely a disconnect between talent and gender. I’ll throw off some names of incredibly great female musicians. Do you know them better than mediocre male talent such as… Jack Johnson? Here we go: Erika Luckett, Natalia Zukerman, Kiya Heartwood, Ann Klein. That’s just four. Any of them can break a fingerboard in half with talent and skill. In “women’s” circles, people know them, but the greater public is unaware.
    This is happy hour conversation in my world. Women fans support women, but men aren’t so likely to give them a try. Since women also support male musicians, I’d say it’s an unbalanced paradigm. All this to say that I don’t think there’s a magic bullet for improving the music business for women. We just won’t break that social confine quickly. However, I gave you 4 women to check out, so you can always take that step in the right direction.

  6. I am of the firm belief that you respect has to be earned. In this case women just have to do better and right now I haven’t seen much. In 40 or so years time we will be looking back at the likes of Radiohead, Porcupine Tree and System of a Down. I don’t think people will be looking back at Rihanna or Beyonce. I don’t doubt women can do just aswell as men, its just right now in terms of composition of music everything is just repetitive pop.


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