by Author Flora Ward

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Lessons from International Women’s Day and their relevance to music education

On Tuesday 8 March, Musicians’ Union hosted an event at HOME in Manchester discussing Women in Music, to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). With talks from Brighter Sound, Creative and Cultural Skills and PRS for Music Foundation amongst others, and a panel consisting of a variety of women artists, musicians and broadcasters, I felt that many of the key themes and debates which emerged on the day were very relevant to the music-making projects that Youth Music funds.

In this blog I wanted to bring together some of the ideas from the IWD event, explored within the context of Exposing the gendered discourse of music education (2002) by Lucy Green. Green is a Professor of Music Education at the UCL Institute of Education, and the paper is a concise, interesting read, fleshed out more in her book Music, Gender, Education (1997).


Background to Green’s findings on girls and music education

Green’s paper lays out the results from her survey of 78 secondary school music teachers across England, and from her interviews with 69 pupils aged 11-16 from mixed inner-London comprehensives.

To sum up Green’s findings briefly: within music education settings girls are seen to be the best at singing, seen to be most interested in ‘slow’ songs about love, and classical music. Girls generally showed a desire to express their emotions and to be delicate, typically through playing classical instruments; they were regarded as lacking confidence, and were seen to conform. Girls were seen to generally avoid ‘showing off’ and performing on highly technological or electronic instruments, e.g. electric guitars and drums.

Boys, on the other hand, were desperate to play these instruments, with teachers reporting that boys declared most other musical activities as ‘cissy’ or ‘un-macho’. Teachers described boys as being anti-conformist and over-confident, disinterested and uncooperative in music lessons. Interestingly, they also considered boys to be the best at composition, due to them being (in the teacher’s eyes) more imaginative, adventurous and creative than girls. They saw girls as being more traditional, conservative, sticking to set forms, and having less ‘natural ability’.

The IWD panel were, of course, keen to overturn these stereotypes and to support and encourage women and girls to be able to get involved with creative music-making of any genre. Here are some of the key discussion points from the event and how they fit with Green’s research:



The women on the Q&A panel placed huge importance on instilling confidence in girls, to negotiate and communicate confidently in all aspects of their lives. Many panellists explained that they had learned this over time, simply because they had to in order to achieve their goals. Green notes the lack of confidence observed in girls within music education settings, and gives examples of girls who are self-critical when it comes to their musical output, calling their compositions ‘silly’, ‘boring’, ‘horrible’ and ‘terrible’.  

Similarly, apologising unnecessarily was a common topic. Women presenters, panellists and audience members admitted to apologising for things when they knew they shouldn’t have done, due to a combination of things - lack of confidence, how they were treated in musical settings (e.g. being questioned during sound check on their ability to judge how they needed their sound mixing) and, further down the line, due to habit. This self-deprecation is evidenced early on, as some girls in Green’s study referred to themselves as ‘incompetent’ and ‘confused’. This makes for worrying reading, and highlights the importance of encouraging girls to have confidence in themselves and their output, artistic or otherwise.

Honest communication from adult/older women shows girls and younger women that confidence, skills and knowledge can and will be learned over time. All of the panellists had stories about when they hadn’t been so confident, and when they wished they had been - and that moments like those taught them how to act going forwards. It’s important for young people to know that often confidence comes with experience, while equally essential for young people to be supported and nurtured to ensure that they are as confident as possible, as soon as possible.



A gender divide is seen in music-making activity because, Green says, ‘most pupils harbour a deep conservatism in the musical realms of gender and sexuality, expressed because of a desire to be a ‘girl’, a desire to be a ‘boy’.’ 

International Women’s Day exists to increase awareness of the worldwide issue of gender inequality, and music is - as Green points out above - a great context within which to raise awareness and explore the topic. Children and young people should be made aware of the issue of gender equality, what it means and why it’s important, by the music industry, music teachers, music leaders (and ideally any other adults in their lives). The more the children and young people know, the more they will be able to make informed decisions and judgements of situations, be aware of socially-imposed gender stereotypes and whether they want to abide by them or break them.

A number of people at the Women in Music event stressed how essential it was that young people know gender equality is not just for the benefit of girls and women, but for boys and men, transgender people, and those who do not align to a conventional gender label, too. Green explains that the gender stereotype which says boys and men must be ‘macho’, ‘manly’ and ‘unemotional’ can negatively impact on boys and young men, by limiting them and pressuring them to conform.  This impacts on the wider social context of mental health, illustrated by the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 – more than cancer or heart attacks. Many boys and men feel that admitting to feelings of mental ill health will make them less ‘manly’ and many men struggle with these problems in silence as a result. Opportunities for children and young people to affirm as well as cross over gender divides via music-making activities can be hugely valuable.


Role models

The importance of strong female role models (especially non-stereotypical role models i.e. not only women singers, but women drummers and producers) within music for girls is enormous: to improve confidence and self-efficacy by showing them that women can and do thrive in all areas of the music industry. Discussions were had at the event about the overwhelming number of examples of women being sexualised and objectified within the music industry, whether that be through the manipulation of a female artist’s image by the upper echelons in order to sell records, or by derogatory and misogynistic lyrics and artistic output coming from male artists.

There are scores of incredible women songwriters, musicians, producers and artists out there, with Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding, M.I.A, Savages and FKA Twigs flying the flag for the UK. However, considering women make up 51% of the UK population, numbers are still tiny and nowhere near representative: the Performing Rights Society’s membership is made up of only 16% women.

In terms of music education, ensuring that young people are aware of the female heroes of musical history as well as musical present is really important – from the likes of the Shangri Las and the Supremes to Nina Simone, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Examples of women who were written out of music history or had their work attributed to others are another vital topic to teach young people as examples of this are numerous, from Maria Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn to Delia Derbyshire.


Music leaders

I found the quotes from music teachers in Green’s research surprising at times, and she does note that some teachers strongly affirmed notions of gender stereotypes, while others worked to counter these. I noted that the genders of the teachers were not recorded, and wondered whether this could have made a difference to the results. I discussed the importance of having female music leaders in music-making projects with a few people at the IWD event. Almost all explained that they wanted to have a stronger presence of female music leaders who are great guitar players, drummers and/or producers working on their projects, to act as essential role models for participants a little closer to home.

Of course, having a female music leader for music-making projects aimed at girls and young women would ensure that the activity is accessible and open to anyone who wanted to get involved, regardless of their cultural and religious practices, and having a male music leader could exclude a whole group of potential participants. It is, above all, crucial to have music leaders who are passionate advocates of equality in all forms, and who will work to encourage the project participants to embrace an attitude of respect towards all people.


Targeted/branded schemes and opportunities

It seems people are divided when it comes to whether ‘safe spaces’ of female-only music-making opportunities should be provided. Some feel that this is absolutely essential, while others feel that it could create a silo and accentuate the problem. Whatever your position on this, it is clear that women feel more comfortable and confident applying for schemes and opportunities specifically branded as being for them from these stats quoted at the IWD event:

  1. 86% of women music creators who applied for PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music fund were new applicants – they had not applied for PRS Foundation’s funding opportunities until there was a scheme specifically targeted at them.
  2. Brighter Sound decided to make their fourth Wall of Sounds Artistic Directors programme open to female musicians and songwriters only, having had only 1 in 4 applications coming from women for their previous editions of the programme. Of the participants in this fourth Wall of Sounds with Beth Orton, 12 of 14 stated they would not have applied if the opportunity was open to both men and women.

Low confidence rates in women are extremely prevalent, especially when it comes to confidence in their musical abilities when compared directly to their male counterparts.  Girl-only groups can create a safe space for girls to feel more confident to try new things, whether an instrument or a genre. Equally, mixed groups which are accessible, supportive and work to reverse the gender stereotyped choices of instruments, by ensuring that girls and young women are given equal opportunities to take up guitar, drums, electronic instruments, producing workshops, etc. go a long way. We have a number of Youth Music projects doing this already, which is great to see.


I’ve written this blog to encourage discussion and to hear your thoughts on the topic and on possibilities for children and young people to cross over gender divides within music-making projects. Please do comment below…