Conversation: ‘We have to acknowledge that sexism exists as much in the arts as in business or politics’

- 4 November 2013

Labour MEP for London Mary Honeyball, sits on both the Women’s Rights Committee and the Culture Committee in the European Parliament. Patricia Adkins-Chiti, is founder of WIMUST (Women in Music Uniting Strategies for Talent)


'The intangibles are the hardest thing to solve' - Mary Honeyball

Mary Honeyball: ‘The intangibles are the hardest thing to solve’

Mary Honeyball: Tell me a bit about how you got into the music industry? Did you grow up with music?

Patricia Adkins-Chiti: I was lucky. My mother and grandmother played the violin and piano. I became aware at a young age that I had a loud voice and was blessed with perfect pitch. I made my debut when I was only three-and-a-half, at the theatre in Southampton. I loved every minute of it, and milked a full three rounds of applause. At 18 I got a scholarship to enter the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I remember my first piano book contained a lot of British composers, including Benjamin Britten and Elisabeth Lutyens. Back then I was gender blind. It was only when I moved to Italy in my early twenties and started to pursue a career in music that the imbalance became clear.

MH: And what was the imbalance? What would you say were the barriers you personally faced?

PA-C: For me it was mainly to do with the culture. From families like ours girls just didn’t go into the theatre. Music was a hobby for stay-at-home mums and housewives. My extended family and friends supported me in trying to pursue music, but my father was very opposed to it. He had a very Victorian attitude to the arts, and refused to fund me. As far as he was concerned I may as well have been running away to join the circus! Because of this I had to get a scholarship to get into the Guildhall.

MH: In my experience of working in politics, cultural problems &#8210 the intangibles &#8210 are the hardest thing to solve…

PA-C: You’re right. There’s no law for us to campaign against &#8210 nothing concrete. The problem is simply a conservative ethos and an entrenched status quo. Composers as a whole tend to be white, bearded men. I’ve written to almost every British orchestra over the last few years. They just don’t want to give a break to untried young women. They like what they know. It’s an old fashioned industry that doesn’t want to change.

MH: But you obviously remain optimistic?

PA-C: Yes. I still think the problem is a lack of will rather than a lack of way. The truth is you need to be proactive to change the status quo &#8210 otherwise things just stay the same.

MH: I’ve seen that a lot myself. All-women shortlists, for example, are the only way of breaking the cycle of male domination in politics. But they’re hard &#8210 and sometimes unpopular &#8210 to implement. It’s easier for political parties to stick with what they know.

PA-C: Yes &#8210 exactly. The path of least resistance is always the most appealing!

MH: So what can we do in music? What’s the equivalent of all-women shortlists?

PA-C: Firstly, at the most basic level, we need far more music education in schools &#8210 more examples of successful women composers from history, and more encouragement for creative girls. Secondly, once women composers have developed their talent we need to be much more proactive in getting their music heard.

MH: And in terms of practical steps?

PA-C: I think we need to take a harder look at the economics of the industry. At the moment all the power is with the producers and distributors. They’re able to coerce young composers into signing contracts which make it harder for them to make a living or operate freely. This disproportionately affects women composers, who are more likely to struggle breaking through.


Patricia Adkins-Chiti: ‘The problem is simply a conservative ethos and an entrenched status quo’

MH: Is there a ‘quota’ equivalent in the music industry? Would you advocate compulsory representation of women composers?

PA-C: I don’t think the comparison works exactly, because composers are independent artists without much decision-making clout themselves. But I do think there should be a drive to encourage women to teach music and to include women composers in their teaching curriculums at schools and universities – a bit like the efforts there have been with STEM subjects. There could also be more emphasis on getting women onto boards in the cultural sector. DCMS research in September showed that museum boards, for example, are striking a better gender balance. We need more of that. There must be the same focus on female representation in the cultural sector as there is in business, so that we end up with more women as Artistic Directors and decisional makers in the music business.

MH: Who could solve these problems? Is it mainly down to the European Parliament? Westminster? The industry itself?

PA-C: The European Parliament has been very useful. Their 2009 resolution came up with all sorts of ideas for performing arts. There’s no single solution to the problem, but I suppose more funding accountability between governments and the industry would be an important step forwards. Music is now big business, much like the Olympic Games. We need to be aware that a lot of the money which funds events like The Proms comes out of our taxes. It’s state money. We should be following that money and making sure it’s distributed fairly &#8210 not just used to perpetuate the existing inequalities. If other publicly funded industries were as lopsided in terms of gender there would be outcry.

MH: It seems so obvious! Why do you think it gets overlooked?

PA-C: Because ‘The Arts’ are for pleasure there’s a tendency for politicians see them as something that develops organically. Gender studies focus on other types of employment, so inequalities in music aren’t taken as seriously as they might be in, for example, medicine. Likewise legislation relating to gender tends to ignore culture and the arts. In this respect I think it’s an area which needs ‘professionalising’.

MH: What do you think of all the stuff about sexualisation of women in music over the last few weeks? Did you agree with Charlotte Church?

PA-C: Absolutely. I think we’re coming at the problem from different ends of the industry, but I completely agree with what she said. The essential problem is that women are not making decisions about the music itself &#8210 they’re not composing or writing enough of the material that gets made. The creative element is monopolised by men; as a result women effectively become little more than ‘props’ in a lot of cases. And having collected stories from women across Europe from women describing discrimination and sexual harassment, I can say that the problem of over-sexualised women, described so eloquently by Charlotte Church, is not restricted to pop music either.

MH: Thanks so much for talking to me Patricia. It’s vital we raise awareness of this issue.

PA-C: No problem. By working together I think politicians like you and musicians such as myself can address it much more successfully.

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