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Pop CultureFebruary 27, 2017

Equalise My Vocals: ‘People want a reward for ticking the boxes … That’s not going to cut it. That’s not equality.’


As part of Equalise My Vocals, a new Spinoff project focusing on equality in the music community, Coco Solid speaks with Jessie Moss about her research on gendered participation in the music industry.

Jessie Moss is an educator, musician, writer and Te Reo Māori enthusiast who lives in Newtown, Wellington, with her partner and two daughters. In 2009, for her Honours year in gender and women’s studies, Moss conducted research on the dearth of women in the music industry. Passionate about the topic ever since, Moss’ research work has always focused on the factors behind lower participation rates for women.

Encouraged ‘technophobia’, the gendered socialisation of young children, the segregation of roles in the industry and pressures around childcare: all contribute to what is much more than just an erosion of will, Moss says. She describes her work as “a sociological feminist investigation into how women are actively put off, shut out and pushed out of the industry”.

I spoke with Jessie about her academic research, why men don’t need to take gender inequality as a personal attack and why we need to start valuing anecdotal and statistical evidence equally.


Coco Solid: A lot of the blowback one gets when you’re putting a project like Equalise My Vocals together, I find comes from a very specific community. A lot of cool men support this kaupapa obviously, but this more reactive community is notably all men … and they are fixated on numbers as opposed to the equally real, lived stories women are outright telling them.

Jessie Moss: Right. ‘Where’s the data, we haven’t seen the statistics, this isn’t based on facts, where is the evidence?’

Exactly. And even if you try to level with an empathetic side that these issues require … like, I might say 50 percent of human beings in the music community are women, wouldn’t you want them to feel safe? Their response is to say ‘where did you get this convenient number from!’ as opposed to acknowledging the more serious problems we’re raising.

It’s interesting when you delve into any social scenario and examine the gender dynamics. It often comes down to statistical data, sure, but for women it is also about valuing anecdotal evidence because numbers are deceiving and concealing. We also need to know why the figures stand as they are – this is where the anecdotal weight comes in. It’s not enough to know that very few women play rock drums professionally, but why. When different genders talk about equality in music, the conversations will be different. Men won’t be talking about sexism and gender roles as often as women are that’s for sure.

So I’m drawn to your work because you’re coming from a research background and you understand the value of sharing a lived experience as a woman in music too. How did you conduct your research on the subject?

I’ve been chipping away at my research for years. I read articles, I write and interview people, because when I started there wasn’t that much about it in New Zealand. So I depended on a lot of overseas research, but heaps of it came from a PhD Dianne Marie Smith did at Otago University. It was super-niche and focused on women sound engineers [Deci-belles: Gender and Power in Sound Engineering for Popular Music in New Zealand] I’ve done the trawling through statistics too. Recently I’ve turned my attention to the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. In 2011, Faye McNeil was nominated for Best Music Video, for her Ladi 6 clip ‘Like Water’. Only one woman has ever won this category (Niki Caro for Straightjacket Fits in 1990) and it’s been going since the 60s! The stats for women even getting nominated in the first place are dismal. Eleven women out of 127 directors nominated.

Then you get the argument that women don’t make ‘industry-standard’ work and there’s simply not enough women who want to direct. But that defensiveness over acknowledgment… where does it come from do you think?

Women are out there working, they’re just not getting recognised. I read this amazing article awhile ago exploring that whole notion ‘not all men’. You know, “Me? I’m a good musician, I have women in my band.”

“I’ve never seen that kind of abuse in the community, that person was always good to me personally.”

So this pushback comes from feeling threatened. The men’s narrative is the norm, the centrepiece in our lives. You even see it with pronouns when you pick up a bug with your child “look at the way he moves”.

No man is an island! The journey of man!

(Both crack up)

We’re so used to that, so when a man is criticised for something…

Yeah, these defensive people attach themselves to your claims of sexism in the industry straight away, they think it’s them you’re talking about. They take it as a personal attack on their whole world even if it’s not, simply because a perceived attack on men is a hit to the ‘male norm’ they know. They’ll respond with ‘not all men’ or even ‘this isn’t true’. They expect you to defend your position before they listen to the point you are trying to make, they are immediately on the defence.

Why did you get into studying gender inequality in music?

I’ve been a musician since I was little. I grew up in Christchurch and I was in choirs, played instruments in orchestras. Mainly classical traditional stuff but music was a normal part of my life. There was always a fairly even balance at school, but the difference I noticed as a teenager with my informal and formal music learning was, suddenly girls and young women were dropping out in the informal music learning, the social aspects of music.

At university I had to do a gender studies research project, I was in my early 20s. At the time I was in a really energetic and interesting flat with five other very talented young men and one woman, most of whom were in a band together. I watched their dynamic and the lack of women playing with them, andI saw my confidence levels and my efforts to be involved in music more broadly…. change. We played different musical styles but I’m sure gender was at play, subconsciously. They’d known each other since high school, where those male bonds are really solidified and can become impermeable. My whole social scene at that time were musicians, almost all of them were men. As time went on I noticed if someone had a kid, it became really difficult for them to participate. Often in a creative couple, a man’s music career would continue somehow and the women would change to facilitate it, maybe take on the breadwinning option to support it. Just watching these factors, they are so subtle and experiential and they just compound over a life.

You’ve got venues, sound techs, performers, publicists, broadcasters, women working all parts of the spectrum. From your observations did you see this…. ‘disengagement’ across the board?

Sure. From underground music through to the more professional industry, the label executives, producers, these roles are dominated by men. The roles that require people to be kept happy, where emotional needs are met, more often these roles are aimed at and taken up by women. And the pay parity reflects that.

You think this starts in the socialisation of children. We start cataloging musical children young?

Like any sphere of life or industry, the technical stuff gets gendered and that technophobia starts when you’re about six. Girls are steered towards individualistic pursuits like writing and drawing more, boys are encouraged to play with equipment.

You’ve seen that as an educator too?

Absolutely. There’s a gendering of educational opportunities and they inform you in later life. You are less likely to pick up a new piece of equipment and start building gear when you’re 30 if you were never really encouraged in technology as a young person. Encouragement is the main one. There is no evidence that says a man can play an MPC better, or a woman is going to play drums differently to a man. There is no physical difference to dictate ability, so therefore it must be socialised.

This is about visibility, access, who is encouraged to do something more?

The way education often happens for boys is they are encouraged to do things and problem-solve in groups, do things in a team. Girls are socialised to be more individualistic and competitive. Young men are often forced to create bonds around their masculinity, which obviously requires them to exclude women or anyone else who doesn’t fit that mould.

I know for a fact when one woman is signed and isolated by mostly male peers, they have a different currency, they are going to get into certain systems and ascend faster. I know first-hand you get validated differently. That macho approval can be a poisoned chalice for some because it gives a false sense that they’re doing something right, or better.

When you look at music history, mentions of women are often fleeting, passive.

Or a very rare unicorn anomaly. “Who was this alien freak of nature who could hold her own amidst these superior men” sorta shit.

And as their reward they often get defined by their awkwardness. Or their masculine attributes are given the credit.

“She was the female Elvis!” Because you can’t have a creative jurisdiction of your own right, it has to correlate with a dominion that a man has already created. Do you think a woman getting to the same point as a man…

You have to be everything

Which is to say… you have to be critically good, pop culturally relevant, aesthetically pleasing, technically astute and my favourite…. pleasant

Well yes we have to be nice to be around! You can’t be challenging, that’s just too much.

Where do you think the discourse is at locally? Internationally these conversations are rupturing, we see a shift. But you’ve studied this here, you teach young children here, you’re embedded in local music too, not to mention your partner (Mara TK from Electric Wire Hustle). Where are we in New Zealand in your opinion?

I still think these conversations are too niche. Even I don’t bring these things up in conversation with my community much because of that awkward defensiveness from men. You can risk a lot if you are in the music community, some people risk their career if they say the wrong thing. I know of a woman who lost her job because management wanted a younger woman to replace her. It’s a writing job! She felt powerless to speak out because she felt no one would believe her and she might struggle to find work again.

This is not a freak occurrence. This shit is happening all the time. If you zoom out with the whole Jedi-Sith stuff that is happening on a global scale, it’s not a dystopian science fiction premise anymore, under Trump we are living it. And you see the uprising of awareness on a variety of ‘isms’ worldwide, do you see that here? A paradigm shift here for local music?

I do feel a paradigm shift coming. Feminism has exploded because of the internet, it’s more accessible so those conversations are changing. Discussing feminism, pay equity issues, these things are normal now and becoming far more acceptable. Compared to ten or even five years ago you wouldn’t hear about it. I guess in terms of the music industry and the darker elements that have surfaced, stories like the Andrew Tidball one for instance, these are being entertained, listened to a little bit on the periphery. That surge is definitely coming and it will be unstoppable.

We have these cases of people abusing power in the music industry since the industry began. Stories of sexual assault and exclusion at all levels. Part of the problem is people thinking this happens in a vacuum, but certain people are afforded opportunities and there are blind eyes at every layer.

This is a very old boys club and it is on lock-down. If you speak about it, there are so many people who are complicit in this behaviour. People don’t get away with these things without people witnessing, knowing something is up deep down, or just being apathetic. They want to protect themselves. Even if they’ve done ‘nothing’ themselves.

I definitely think people should always be auditing their choices and alignments. But that might require a bead of sweat or two extra to look around and say “there are only men in this studio” or “there are only men on this line-up tonight” or “something ain’t right”.

I think the consciousness has to shift. People want a reward for ticking the boxes. I have the one brown person, I have the one woman, got a gay person…. I’m good! That’s not going to cut it. That’s not equality.

Equality is about us being proud to participate, sure. What you don’t hear about is the responsibility of men in the community to share power… to pool resources with the wahine, trans and non-binary people…. really show up for those people in their lives. So say if you had their attention and you could outline ways they could improve things locally what would they be? What would you say?

I would address those men, those people who are privileged and existing in these supported systems and networks, which are invisible to them. I’d ask them to take stock of who is around them and acknowledge how they got to be where they are. It’s not in a vacuum. They don’t dominate their field just because they worked hard or because they’re talented, although no doubt both these things will be true to a degree. But it’s not as simple as that. Think about your education, your family and friends, what social patterns do you see around yourself? For women the experience is different – socialised to be meek, passive and pleasing at school, rather than an adventurous risk taker, women may have had children, suffered sexism, and then have these boys clubs to contend with in your 20s. I want men to understand that they have access to opportunities and connections that women of equal talent and hard graft often don’t… I’d ask them to look closer at their own experience and not feel attacked when women talk to them about this.


Equalise My Vocals is a panel event and music showcase on gender equality in music happening in May 2017. As part of the project, Coco Solid will be conducting a series of interviews for The Spinoff, talking to a wide range of women, transgender and non-binary people, within all sectors of New Zealand music. Overall this project is about sharing stories and pooling knowledge and experience, while building a rolodex of resources for music-lovers (of all genders) who might need them in the future.

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