Equality on a conference stage

by Rhian Jones

Alongside the wider music business, industry conferences have been under scrutiny for the lack of diversity within speaker line-ups in recent years. The criteria for those chosen to appear on stage generally values seniority and time in the business, and because the music industry isn’t very diverse at the top, that results in many all male panels.

An excellent article by journalist Cherie Hu measured the scale of the problem across 2017 editions of 13 music conferences of note, and found that 73% of the total 1,644 speakers were male. There’s evidence to suggest not much has changed in 2018. Of the 292 speakers listed at four conferences – Midem in France, Future Music Forum in Barcelona, NY:LON Connect in London and Pollstar Live in Los Angeles — 26% were women, and 74% were men.

Nothing changes overnight and it’s going to take a long time before there’s equal representation at the top because it takes proper nurturing and retirement before women can take a fair share of those senior positions. However, there is far more equality within the lower ranks of the totem pole. In the UK, the gender pay gap figures published earlier this year showed that while the average top-earning quartile across Universal, Sony and Warner is 69% male and 30% female, the average lower-middle earning quartile across the three labels drops to 56% male and rises to 44% female.

So in order to get equal representation at conferences, those who book speakers should be looking across all levels of people working in the business. The music industry is catering to the world: the young, the old and the in-between. Which is why it’s important that a voice is given to people from all those categories, as well as equal gender and ethnic backgrounds. If there’s a lack of representation at the top, which we know there is, why not give chances to a more diverse group lower down the ranks?

Some conferences seem to be doing just that… only to retract offers made to women if a ‘more senior’ guy becomes available, even after those women have accepted. Alongside my own experience, I’ve heard similar stories across three conferences from more than five other sources within my limited network of this trend. First of all, it’s rude and insulting to ask and then replace (especially for those who have, for the most part, kindly agreed to give their time and expertise for free). Secondly, years in the industry as the main qualifier excludes the wealth of value in different perspectives and experiences. Which is how you end up with a lack of diversity in the first place. Is equal value being place on everyone’s time and expertise? And if not, why not?

As music business consultant Lara Baker wrote about here, women are more likely to turn down speaking gigs because they feel they haven’t got the required expertise. I can say the same goes for being interviewed in the trade press. So it can take a lot of courage to accept in the first place — to then be bumped from the programme might mean the answer is no next time, and the lack of equal representation continues. Those in the minority are doing their part to improve the status quo by accepting the offer. Those who are being paid to make the decisions have a responsibility to make sure speakers feel valued and respected, and keep on saying yes.