Article by Emma Grace Stephenson, an Australian pianist and songwriter who has shared the stage with prolific musicians and bands such as Ingrid and Christine Jensen (Canada/US), Gian Slater, the Sirens Big Band and Sandy Evans

Emma is the latest recipient of the ‘Jann Rutherford Memorial’ award for young women in the Australian jazz scene.

You can read more about Emma on her Blog

A few years ago I was the pianist for a quintet that travelled to Scotland to play at the Edinburgh Jazz and Aberdeen International Youth Festivals. We were an all-female ensemble, and deliberately assembled as such by the Sydney arts organisation who funded the trip.

Since then I have often found myself benefiting from an opportunity for which the selection criteria has included the immutable trait of gender. I am always grateful for the systems put in place by generous and caring people, to ensure a fair go for those that are at risk of being both unheard and unseen. But I am also mildly embarrassed that the jazz music industry – which compared to other entertainment and music scenes seems to pride itself on being a meritocracy -still requires affirmative action to be taken in order for my gender to flourish in it.

The conflicting emotions I struggled with throughout that trip culminated in a special event set up at the only jazz club in Aberdeen. We, the quintet, were to host a jam-session style concert, along with the five most recent winners of the ‘Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year’ award. Unsurprisingly, our Scottish co hosts were all men. The event was no doubt intended to be an amicable exchange between musicians of equal ability and similar ages, from opposite sides of the world. Despite the applaudable intentions behind the event, from my own experience it quickly transformed into a public jazz match of Aussie girls vs Scottish boys. Perhaps I’ve coloured the memory with self-deprecating overtones, but I think the boys won, fair and square. In my mind, we weren’t the losing team for lack of ability. We were the losing team because somehow, we showed up less equipped to step up to the occasion that we couldn’t help feeling was a competition, despite the genuine and heartfelt civility between all involved. That night encapsulated so much of what confuses and concerns me about the ‘issue’ of women in jazz.


My internal struggle would be greatly assuaged if I genuinely believed that the underrepresentation of my gender in the international jazz scene was entirely due to the current imposition of unfair discrimination. Outrage, if it were permissible, would be the easiest reaction to manage. The right course of action would be quite obvious: complain loudly and unapologetically – progress always prevails, after all. I don’t think that this approach really acknowledges the whole truth.

Two facts that I believe to be true about my working life as a musician:

1. I get some opportunities because I am a young female, and reasonably good at what I do.
2. There are some opportunities that I don’t get, because I am a young female, despite being reasonably good at what I do.

First to explain what I mean by “opportunities”. For my purposes “opportunities” encompass anything that might further an individual’s career, or financial position in regards to their specific field. For musicians, this encompasses work such as gigs, full-time band memberships, commissions, and special recognitions or funding such as being selected as a finalist for an award or receiving a grant. For the purposes of this article, I am going to give anyone who is in a position of power or influence in the outcomes of these opportunities the label of “decision maker.”

It’s also important to distinguish the difference between immutable and mutable traits. By “immutable trait”, I mean anything that is intrinsic to your person, such as age, gender, sexuality or race. Conversely, a “mutable” trait is one that an individual has adopted by choice, and may similarly abandon by choice. Sometimes, discriminating against a mutable trait is perfectly justified, for example, an individual may be able to claim that:

1. I get some work because I bring beers to rehearsal.
Or perhaps
2. There is some work that I don’t get because I am an asshole.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities that I don’t get because I am genuinely not the best candidate. This is true for everyone regardless of their immutable traits. But it’s unlikely that the person who is given the opportunity is always the “best” candidate, if measured purely in musical ability (which I admit is a subjective assessment anyway.)

I know that I get some opportunities because I am young and female, because I am often asked to “please recommend another girl” when I am unavailable for a gig. In more obvious cases, the actual description for a candidate is that they must be a woman, for example to be a part of the trip to Scotland that I have described, or to be awarded the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, of which I am proud and honoured to be the latest recipient.

Perhaps my assertion that there are some opportunities that I don’t get because I am young and female is a little more elusive, but I’m sure that it is true. There will always be extraneous factors that are weighing in on the decision to select a certain musician for gigs and band membership. I would like to reserve the right to play music with whoever I want in the future, so I’d be hypocritical to get angry about the underrepresentation of women in most bands and on most gigs. When it’s my turn to assemble the musicians, I reliably over represent my friends and underrepresent other people who are equally or more worthy of the job given their musical ability and geographic location. In my mind, making music is as much a social affair as it is an artistic one, and I certainly wouldn’t want this aspect of my industry to change. The internal biases that might nudge a middle-aged man to work with another middle-aged man is no worse than my bias towards my housemates, partner, or other close friends who I have shared experiences with.

Having said that, the real world consequences of repeated submission to certain biases can have long term and far-reaching impacts, and to make progress it is helpful to acknowledge the power of our words and actions. Expanding one’s artistic and social circle to include a more diverse range of people would probably enhance, rather than inhibit, one’s artistic and social life.

A meritocracy, for my purposes, is a system where people make progress based on the merit of their contributions, rather than the groups or categories to which they are understood to belong. When I use the word ‘meritocracy’, I am assuming that ‘merit’ is a subjective term that can apply to anything that we might value about a contribution to our artform, such as creativity, innovation, virtuosity, social and political significance, simplicity, cohesion, etc. Music would be judged on its own terms. The gender, race, sexuality, or other immutable traits of the people making the music would not affect that judgment, because those factors are not relevant to the merit of the music. ‘Meritocracy’ is not a perfect term, but I think it’s the best word we have to describe a way of consuming art that is unaffected, as much as possible, by unfair and unhelpful prejudice. In a fully functioning meritocracy of this kind, comprised of decent human beings, the ideal two statements that would apply to everyone would probably read:

1.There are some opportunities that I get because I am really good at what I do, and I am a decent human being.
2. There are opportunities that I don’t get, because others are better than me at what I do, despite the fact that I am a decent human being.

I think that it’s unlikely that we will ever see this utopian level of fairness in a community such as the Australian jazz scene – or any music scene for that matter. It’s no one in particular’s fault that as human beings we all have preferences that are affected by factors other than what we would deem appropriate if we were to be perfect moral specimens at all times.

To zoom out and see how my opening statements might apply more generally to anyone in the Sydney music scene, and many other scenes and industries, read.

1. I get some opportunities because I am *insert immutable trait* and good at what I do.
2. There are some opportunities that I don’t get, because I am *insert immutable trait*, despite being good at what I do.

If you can insert an immutable fact about yourself into either or both of these sentences and have them come out as conceivably true, then chances are you are affected by stereotypes and associations. Most of us do not escape the influence of unfair prejudices. Research shows that we are all simultaneously victims and perpetrators of stereotypes and biases that would not be permissible if the world were an absolute meritocracy.

For example, a U.S study has concluded that in the corporate world, an inch of height is worth approximately $789 in salary dollars per year (Cable and Judge 2004). Researchers concluded that, “we live in a society where physical appearance matters, not only because it affects how others respond to us but it also affects how we view ourselves.” Research has shown that meditating on the idea of being a ‘soccer hooligan’ as opposed to a ‘professor’ can evoke the corresponding behaviour, and change quiz scores from a pass to a fail (Dijksterhuis and Knippenberg 1998).  The anxiety experienced by an individual when put in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype is known as ‘stereotype threat.’ Researchers found that black students who were asked to identify race before taking a test suffered from stereotype threat, which impeded their performance (Aronson and Steele, 1995). Researchers have also discussed the same effect on women’s performance in mathematical tasks (Spencer, Steele & Quinn 1999). ‘Stereotype threat’ seems like a fairly robust explanation of what I experienced that night in Scotland. I was terribly afraid of confirming a negative stereotype – “girls can’t play jazz”. I performed worse for it.

It should come as no surprise that stereotypes and associations around gender affect our attitudes and judgements in alarming ways. In Stephen Dubner’s podcast “What are Gender Barriers Made of? (Freakonomics Radio)”, much of this research is explored. For example, studies have shown that changing the name of a character in a story about a successful venture capitalist from ‘Howard’ to ‘Heidi’ negatively affects the likability of that character to both male and female graduate business students. Iris Bonhet, author of “What Works: Gender Equality by design”, accounts for this by noting the character’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes. Katherine Coffman (Harvard business school) has established that changing test conditions to remove penalties for wrong answers removes the gap between scores of men and women, and this is probably because women are far quicker to admit that they are unsure and less likely to volunteer ideas or take risks in answering questions. Megan Summers (Harvard University) explains that our perception of language (as in, how you understand words and sentences) changes depending on whether we hear a man or woman’s voice speaking.

Research into bias and stereotypes affecting the music community includes a study that found students who listened to two identical piano performances would deem the one labeled ‘professional’ better than the one labeled ‘student’ (Duerksen 1972). R. E. Radocy’s (1976) study into bias led him to conclude that “an authority figure providing bogus information regarding performers’ professional roles may bias undergraduate students evaluation of identical performances”, and that “music educators need to consider more closely the extent to which they influence students on the basis of appearance rather than substance”. Progress has been made in some areas, such as classical music in the United States, where in recent decades orchestras generally adopted the ‘blind’ method of audition, where applicants’ identity was concealed to the panel via the use of a screen, and a number identification system rather than names. After a thorough analysis of the relevant data, Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse (1997) concluded “we find…that the switch to blind auditions can explain about one third of the increase in the proportion of females among new hires”. It is worth considering what might happen if the jazz world adopted similar standards for selection into important ensembles and programs. It is unlikely that the jazz art form, being relatively young and very new to the educational environments of colleges and universities, has managed to evade the psychological obstacles that prevent the formation of genuine meritocracies.

Given the significance of all the above research, it is certainly a good thing that some opportunities are specifically set up to create a level playing field for all. Let’s call these “merit-based opportunities.” They aspire to exist outside of the influence of social and cultural biases and aim to give platforms to worthy candidates on the basis of ability alone. To name just a few of these events, take the Generation in Jazz Instrumental finals, the top ensembles and big bands in major jazz university programs, the Wangaratta Jazz awards, Freedman Fellowships, and the Bell Awards. The “decision makers” in these instances have a responsibility to ensure a fair go for all. I am not claiming to have collected all the relevant information and done an in depth, statistical analysis…but it doesn’t require that level of scientific rigour to firmly establish that women ARE underrepresented in the candidature of merit-based opportunities in the Australian jazz scene. On the road towards a successful jazz career, there are clearly barriers that affect women more than men.
It’s tempting to assume that these barriers must exist either in the form of:

1. Unfair discrimination on the part of the decision makers (who are often men in the industry).
2. Some intrinsic and biological trait of being a woman that contributes to under performance.

The former option is the more politically correct and socially acceptable, but it conveniently ignores the fact that in some (though not all) cases, biases are controlled for through the system used to select the candidates. An example of this is the anonymous CD application process for the Wangaratta awards. The latter option is a conversation that most would rather not have, but does not seem to be qualified by any research or evidence (read on). I am convinced that these two factors, if they play any role at all, are not the whole picture. They are also far more likely to exist simultaneously amongst a myriad of other factors, than to be mutually exclusive.

To examine the influence of gender, we need make a comparison. An obvious comparison to make is that between the male to female ratio in the pool of aspiring candidates, vs the pool of successful candidates. “Aspiring candidates” being those who’d be glad to be recognised and promoted as finalists, nominees, or winners in these merit-based opportunities, and “successful candidates” being those who do achieve the recognition or promotion, i.e. winners and finalists.

We can consider the ‘aspiring candidate group’ in two ways. The first is to consider anyone who made an application or made themselves visible to the decision makers in cases of nomination. They are both aspiring and visible. Comparing the representation of women in the ‘aspiring and visible group’  in with the ‘successful candidates group’ would probably show a discrepancy. The representation of women in the ‘aspiring and visible group’ is probably very small, but probably not as small as the near zero percentage of women in the pool of successful candidates.
Of course, this may not be the case. It may be the case that women are actually not putting themselves forward at all for these opportunities, and are therefore victims of a self-imposed invisibility. The second way to define the ‘aspiring candidates group’ is to include anyone who had enough aspiration and talent to attend and complete a university course majoring in jazz studies, or any other commitment that requires a basic level of enthusiasm and ambition regarding the art form. It’s fair to assume that most people in this category did hope for recognition and success in a career as a jazz musician, regardless of whether or not they acted upon these aspirations in the following years. Under this definition, the aspiring group includes both the aspiring and visible and the aspiring but invisible. It seems blatantly obvious that comparing the male to female ratio of this larger aspiring group to that of the ‘successful candidates group’ would show a significant discrepancy. If you look at the representation of women in the population of the top students at jazz camp Australia or the undergraduate jazz performance degrees in major Australian universities, for example, you would see a far higher percentage of women than the near zero percent representation in the successful candidate groups of merit-based opportunities. Being a woman would no doubt predict a less likely outcome of long term success in the jazz industry.

Biddy Healey has eloquently summarised much of the important research that offers interesting insights into why women may be underrepresented in these merit based opportunities. You can read her blog and see the sources here:

The above article is so well referenced that it seems unnecessary to cover the same ground in as much detail. For simplicity’s sake I will informally lay out 6 important general findings:
Jazz music is strongly perceived by students as having a masculine stereotype, this is mainly due to historical trends and the associations that they naturally create.
    Instruments often carry with them gender associations, and many of ‘feminine’ instruments are not often used in jazz – which further reinforces the masculine stereotype of jazz music.
In the US (as qualified by the research – but possibly in Australia as well), women participate at lower levels in high school and tertiary jazz programs
There is no evidence of a difference between genders regarding inherent ability to improvise, or to learn a musical instrument.
There IS evidence that improvisation causes more anxiety in young women than in young men, and that young women often perceive themselves as less suited to the jazz art form, which can, in turn, lead to underperformance.
Despite differences between men and women in brain activity being detectable during the performance of musical tasks, there is no evidence of difference in behavioural outcomes (how male and female brains go about conducting a musical task is different, but the consequent behaviour is the same).

Based on these findings and the previous research I have summarised, I think that the underrepresentation of women in the Australian jazz scene might be a self-perpetuating cycle where biases cause self-imposed limiting beliefs, which impinges upon artistic progress. These limitations then translate to underperformance, which validates existing stereotypes and associations, motivating further bias and stereotype formation, and thus continues the cycle.

Discrimination may have been integral in contributing to the historical formation of stereotypes (particularly ‘American’, ‘Male’, ‘Heterosexual’, ‘Cis-gendered’) around the jazz art form. However, in my opinion, to be subtly affected by these stereotypes today, does not necessarily make any individual ‘sexist’, ‘misogynistic’, or deserving of reprimand for internal, and often unconscious biases. I myself am affected by the masculine stereotype of jazz, in the way that it impacts my expectations of women, and I would hardly call myself a misogynist. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and we should call out any form of bigotry whenever and wherever we see it. We also mustn’t forget that the self-perpetuating cycle of associations and stereotypes affects many people, and women just happen to be the most recognizable victims, being roughly half of the population at large. How many openly gay men do we have in the Australian jazz scene, for example?

Certainly a smaller percentage than their representation in the Australian population as a whole. The same goes for the growing portion of the population that does not conform to or identify with existing binary concepts of gender. Barriers caused by stereotypes and associations are everywhere. We all form prejudices through observation of ‘the norm’ (which in itself is most likely affected by pre-existing prejudice), and all we can do is try, to the best of our ability, to design systems and practices that correct for these failings in our own intuitions. This leads me to my next point.

Let’s be honest. As far as feminist issues go, the underrepresentation of women in jazz should probably not be at the top of the list. We have many other battles to fight simultaneously…and most of them are not on our own soil or in our own workplaces. In Western, progressive democracies, we do seem to be moving closer and closer to a world uninhibited by expectations around gender, and no doubt the next generation will do better than us. Of course we have feminist activism, amongst other political and social revolutions to thank for this progress, but we mustn’t risk undoing it with bad information, or exaggerated misconceptions. The infamous gender pay gap, which was born out of research in the US, establishes that women earn about 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. As the podcast episode “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap (Freakonomics Radio 2016)” explains, the facts are often misrepresented in the media as being indicative of outright discrimination. According to the reputable researchers presented in this podcast, there is little evidence that outright discrimination is what usually accounts for the pay gap. Rather, the gap is largely the result of career decisions made by individuals – leading to ‘occupational segregation’. That is – men and women favour different types of work. The “equal pay for equal work” mantra is therefore, a little misleading. Claudia Goldin (Harvard economist) and Anne-Marie Slaughter (author of ‘Unfinished Business’) both argue that care giving obligations such as for children and family members may account for these career decisions that favour flexibility of working hours (coined ‘temporal flexibility’ by Goldin) at the expense of the salary figure. Like I have said previously, we are yet to live in a world where judgements and expectations of people are uninhibited by their perceived gender. I personally believe that it would ultimately be better for all if particular expectations around roles and responsibilities were not attached to specific genders. In any case, the issue of underrepresentation of women in jazz may similarly be the result of decisions being made by individuals while trying to navigate a world that is still burdened with the remnants of past misdemeanors. As I have argued, the most striking form that these remnants take are the stereotypes and associations that continue to colour our judgments, even when we wish they wouldn’t.

Working against these unconscious biases in the arts is the responsibility of all creators and administrators, whatever their political leanings or personal gender identification. This is for the sake of the longevity, depth, and relevance of the art form, if not for the women and other underrepresented groups themselves.
One way that the issue has been dealt with is through the creation of exclusive platforms such as programs, festivals, bands and awards for women only. This is essentially a form of affirmative action. As a beneficiary of these exclusive platforms, I am grateful that they exist. They do, however, come with both upsides (which are incredibly important), and downsides (which are entirely avoidable). It’s easy to call this type of exclusivity a “double standard”, in that any opportunity that was advertised for “men only” would no doubt attract cries of sexism. Of course many would argue that even though many opportunities are not advertised as for “men only”, they are nevertheless treated as such. As I have already said, I don’t take issue with all instances of this exclusivity as we all have the right to play music with whomever we want. However, if the opportunity is specifically set up to further the careers of candidates on the basis of musical ability alone, then this argument holds. We must spread the message that the existence of exclusive platforms for women in the jazz industry, does not exonerate decision makers from the responsibility of considering women and men equally for non-gender specific opportunities. There is a term for this type of self-exoneration in social psychology, it’s called “moral licensing.” Tolerating, applauding, or being instrumental in a particular event of social change does not absolve us of future responsibility to ensure a fair go for all. The exclusive platforms exist to provide support to those who are at risk of being unheard and unseen. We may not have all the answers as to why women are at risk, but it’s clear that they are. When this changes, the platforms will no doubt be redundant, and cease to be implemented. If they weren’t, then (and only then) we could justify calling it a double standard.

However, we must be mindful that discrimination, if it plays a role at all, is only one factor contributing to the gender imbalance in the jazz industry. Other factors are the decisions and behaviours willingly adopted by women, who for whatever reason, are just less likely to pursue a career as an elite jazz musician. Affirmative action will change this too, as more young women see role models and examples of successful females in the industry. I think it’s important to clarify that our affirmative action is in aid of undermining the affects of stereotypes and biases that exist in the minds of both men and women, and not as a rebellion against collective misogyny, which may or may not really exist in our scene. For all the times that my gender has disadvantaged my prospects, there are at least as many times that it has advantaged me, and this is not only at the hands of other women, but also men in the industry who really do want to see progress on this front. I am not claiming that my experience mirrors all other women, and I am sure that in previous decades things have been very different, but I certainly don’t see any evidence of a mass conspiracy against women in the Australian jazz scene today.

That night in Aberdeen left me with a mixture of panic and determination. As my fears about the about the possibility of being doomed by my gender subsided, they were replaced with a fierce propulsion towards getting better at what I do. I returned home and transcribed a solo that became a total game changer for my playing. I’m sure many creative types can relate to this pattern of behaviour, where a feeling of defeat ultimately changes character and becomes deeply motivating. So I don’t regret that experience, nor any other moments that have left me feeling challenged. To women in the jazz scene who might be reading this, I think that the worst damage that associations and stereotypes can do to our chances of success in this art form, is the damage they do to our own sense of worthiness. We can become fearful of the cultural landscape that we traverse, and even hold biases against ourselves. It will probably take several generations for the perceived “masculinity” of jazz music to be reworked to become gender neutral. Note that by the term ‘gender neutral’ I am referring to the perception of the art form itself (i.e., “music has no gender.”)

Most importantly, we must fight for equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome. The social and cultural barriers that deter women from the industry must be removed, but we should avoid demanding that our elite jazz musicians are 50% women and 50% men, especially when the aspiring group does not reflect this ratio. That would work against individual freedoms and preferences, and undermine our commitment to a meritocracy, which if properly implemented and upheld, will produce and recognise worthy musicians, irrespective of their gender.

Regardless of which groups we belong to, we all have one thing in common, and that is that we are individuals. Understanding this is pivotal in the sentiment of any creative or artistic endeavour. The less we resort to defining people by the groups that they belong to, and the more that we can focus on recognising and supporting individuals for their unique capacity to contribute, the better off we will be.

“Women’s Jazz” is not a genre of music, and if there were a measurable difference between the average jazz improvisation of men and women, then I highly doubt this difference would be greater than the difference between individuals within the same group. We have already established that women have, and will continue to make substantial and important contributions to the jazz art form. All we need to do is reflect the talent and hard work of individuals who are already there, already keen, but at risk of slipping under the radar.

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Emma Grace Stephenson is an Australian pianist and songwriter who has shared the stage with prolific musicians and bands such as Ingrid and Christine Jensen (Canada/US), Gian Slater, the Sirens Big Band, Sandy Evans, Greg Gould (Australia’s Got Talent 2013), and Brittanie Shipway (The Voice 2014). Her music combines rhythmic, harmonic, and improvisatory elements from her roots as a modern jazz pianist, with folk-pop songwriting influences. Emma is the latest recipient of the ‘Jann Rutherford Memorial’ award for young women in the Australian jazz scene. This award facilitated a collaboration with the award winning Australian vocalist, Gian Slater, culminating in performances for the Melbourne and Sydney Women’s Jazz Festivals, and a recording at ABC studios in late 2016. An album of this work will be released in February, 2017.