Women’s Week: Unconscious bias behind imbalance in men and women performing in Suffolk’s music scene, campaigners say

Andi Hopgood performing with the Suffolk Soul Singers. Picture: PHIL MORLEY

Andi Hopgood performing with the Suffolk Soul Singers. Picture: PHIL MORLEY - Credit: Archant

Across Suffolk, dozens of bands, singers, solo acts, choirs and orchestras ply their trade on evenings and weekends as part of the county’s eclectic night time economy.

Amy Wragg runs the Get on the Soapbox events in Suffolk. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Amy Wragg runs the Get on the Soapbox events in Suffolk. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

And while celebrating and supporting the arts is a thing to be cherished, dig deeper into the numbers of women involved and some problems emerge.

By no means just a Suffolk issue, a cursory glance beneath the surface reveals that the county is merely a postcard for a wider problem.

Andi Hopgood, Ipswich-based musician, music teacher, and vice-chairwoman of the Musicians’ Union (MU), says: “I think it’s the same everywhere.

“There are a lot of female singers, but as far as female instrumentalists go there is a real shortage.

Musician's Union representative Andi Hopgood performing live has said the problems in Suffolk are in

Musician's Union representative Andi Hopgood performing live has said the problems in Suffolk are indicative of the national picture. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

“It’s very hard to pin down why that is, but in my experience it comes from school.

“By the time you look at the music colleges and universities it is already male dominated, but in schools girls are learning instruments so there is something in that sixth form age that puts them off.

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“But if you don’t see a lot of women, who are the role models you are looking at?”

The representation of women in the music scene almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fewer women there are performing regularly, the less likely young girls will pick up an instrument in the first place.

Event organiser Amy Wragg believes unconscious bias is the prime reason behind the gap in representa

Event organiser Amy Wragg believes unconscious bias is the prime reason behind the gap in representation between men and women in Suffolk. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

With no role models and only scant presence, the impetus to join is lessened.

But how did it get to that point? The answers are not quite so clear cut, but some of the women involved in the local scene have some ideas.

Amy Wragg, an Ipswich promoter and gig organiser who runs Get on the SoapBox, which includes an entire stage at Folk East among other events, says: “From a very young age women are taught that being bold or opinionated means you are pushy or rude, but if a man does it he is a strong leader, he is committed and confident.

“We are still, even myself trying to be a conscious feminist, still stuck in a society we were brought up in.”

Andi Hopgood performing live. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Andi Hopgood performing live. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

As part of her events, Mrs Wragg consciously books around 70% female acts to redress the gender balance – the exact opposite of the 70% upwards in favour of men seen nationwide.

But as well as ensuring there is a healthy balance, as one of the few female promoters she says it is about making sure that valuable artistic contributions are not lost.

Festival line-ups tend to be weighted towards 80% male acts, while that proportion in music technology based work is even more biased as the number of producers, electronic musicians, sound technicians and engineers equates to just a handful of percent at best for female representation.

In UK orchestras, a gender imbalance where around 90% were men prompted the introduction of screened auditions, and astonishingly resulted in a 50/50 split which has helped that genre.

But with other music genres such as pop and rock more reliant on personalities – and often much more sexualised – such a measure industry-wide is harder.

What both Miss Hopgood and Mrs Wragg agree on it that unconscious bias rather than overt sexism is perhaps the bigger problem, as ingrained and historic attitudes prove hard to shift.

“It’s really hard to identify and really hard to challenge,” Mrs Wragg says.

“If you are aware of unconscious bias as a concept then when you are programming, constructing a music show, booking a festival stage, you should be looking at it, stepping back, and saying ‘what have I done, why have I done this’ and challenging motivations.”

The 35-year-old’s experience is of at least 80% of Ipswich gigs having a male bias, and while both Mrs Wragg and Miss Hopgood aim to be role models and make themselves available to young female artists emerging in the music scene, a wider movement is needed.

That’s where the #MeToo campaign has been instrumental in promoting conversations about instances of sexism.

Miss Hopgood says she has had her breasts grabbed while singing on stage, and encountered even basic issues such as no women’s changing facilities – things she may not have spoken about before but has since the hashtag was launched.

As such, she has been keen to promote the MU’s email address, safespace@themu.org which allows people to anonymously report incidents and gain advice and guidance on what to do next.

But what needs to happen now to start making progress?

“I would like to see music treated as a career option,” Miss Hopgood says.

“I think there are a lot of people who write it off as not a real job.

“We all have our own unconscious bias but to educate yourself on what your is is very useful.”

Mrs Wragg adds: “These problems are humanity’s problems, they are not just women’s problems, and men being fantastic allies can help turn the tide.

“I want my step-daughters to see young women playing, getting up on stage, and being bold or having an opinion – saying what they want unashamedly without fear of reprisal.”

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