No Gender Gap in Talent

Jane Getter is an amazing artist and terrific guitarist. Guitar Player magazine has described her as “the fieriest fret-boarding female ever to strap on a Stratocaster.” For years she was the lead guitarist for the Saturday Night Live band, and has toured and recorded with many of the finest jazz performers of our time.

At her recent performance as a guest artist at McNally Smith College of Music, I was a bit dismayed to overhear a well-intentioned remark from an audience member who exclaimed, “Man, she’s hot; She plays like a guy.”

Jane Getter is super fast and fluent, adventurous and aggressive in her lines, and simply an incredible virtuoso. Since a vast majority of guitar virtuosi in history have been male, I’m sure this comment was intended as a compliment by suggesting that she belongs in this elite company.

Still, it is troubling to realize that in the world of contemporary music we haven’t come as far in creating equal opportunities and gender equity as we have in other fields, and the result is the stale, tired perception by some that women just aren’t as gifted as men in instrumental music.

The year I graduated from high school in 1969, less than 9% of applicants to medical school were women. There was an overwhelming perception that men were more qualified for this highly demanding field of science. In the same year, less than 8% of students in Ivy League law schools were women. No doubt, the same type of reasoning applied. Today, in both fields, the percentages are close to 50/50%.

The same kind of male dominance also existed in the makeup of symphony orchestras. It was not until the 1970’s when the practice of “blind auditions” became prevalent (performers are behind a curtain so they cannot be seen) that the number of women began to substantially increase, and it did so rapidly. Today women typically hold about 40% of full time orchestral positions.

The one exception in contemporary popular music is, of course, vocalists. No one in their right mind would think of suggesting that women are less accomplished singers than men. The pantheon of great singers in jazz, rock, folk, country, and the like would probably be a pretty even split.

Clearly there is not a real talent gap, but there is a numbers gap when comparing gender of guitarists, drummers, horn players, bass players, and other instruments in contemporary popular music. The situation is somewhat self perpetuating in that most schools of contemporary music are heavily male in faculty and student body make up, and this is the first place we must start to make changes.

It is not enough to make the excuse that our gender make up “reflects the music industry,” that is to say heavily male. Leadership means going beyond “reflecting” the current trend if we wish to create meaningful change.

I believe music schools must proactively seek highly qualified women to perform, be guest artists, to teach, and to lead our institutions of higher learning. Having more women present in the faculty, the student body, in the recording studios, and on the stage can also become self perpetuating, and make our schools a more encouraging, supportive, and dynamic environment for young women who wish to make a life in music

 

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