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13 October 2021

‘We Need to Hear Your Voices’: Understanding Gender Inequity in Screen Music

Felicity Wilcox Image: Felicity Wilcox  

Women's Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, out this month from Routledge, is a new volume focusing exclusively on the work of screen composers who identify as female. The volume shines a light on those who have excelled internationally in their field, and the systemic gender bias that has made their path so difficult. The following extracts from the introduction by editor Felicity Wilcox are published here by kind permission from the publisher. Please see the Routledge website for full information and to purchase copies (hard/soft cover and ebook).

On 9 February 2020, Icelander Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Oscar for Best Original Score for Joker (Todd Phillips 2019). In her acceptance speech she made a moving plea: 'To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices.' (Willman and Aurthur 2020). Why these words - what was she talking about?

Guðnadóttir was the first woman to win this award in 23 years - since Anne Dudley won for The Full Monty in 1997, a year after Rachel Portman's win for Emma (1996). These three are the only female-identifying composers to win an individual Oscar for Best Score in its 85-year history. Marilyn Bergman also shared a win for Yentl (1983) with husband Alan Bergman and Michel Legrand, for 'song score' - a category that was later phased out (Willman and Aurthur 2020). By imploring more women to follow through on their music-making, Guðnadóttir was - at the simplest level of discourse - requesting that other female composers join her in disrupting the numbers that give a woman just a 3.5% chance of winning this award. Hollywood's general lack of diversity is increasingly being called out (Smith 2016; Smith et al. 2018; Belam and Levin 2018; Erbland 2019), and Guðnadóttir used her platform to draw attention to 'how bad the statistics are' for female screen composers (Willman and Aurthur 2020). In an interview with Variety, she later elaborated, albeit in understated tones: 'this is a little bit silly, we should be opening up the industry to more women' (ibid.).

This last statement hints at a more confusing underlying reality. 'Opening up the industry' suggests that the screen music industry has been closed to women - and the above statistics would suggest this - yet anti-discrimination legislation in most Western countries has long made it illegal to hire people on the basis of gender. This is where it gets more complex, and questions begin to emerge for those of enquiring mind, such as: does the screen music industry exclude women? What is the extent of this exclusion? What are its consequences? Why has inequity been allowed to persist? This book considers some of those questions through presenting individual profiles of internationally recognised female-identifying composers, and case studies of specific industrial contexts, which reveal certain common threads of experience. Women's stories and achievements offer background to the most common issues they confront, and provide context for women's comparative lack of cut-through in an industry that has, without question, traditionally excluded them.


Recent research reveals that women are now represented in almost equal numbers in music-related subjects at university level (Bain 2019; Strong and Raine 2019) - with the exception being courses in music technology, where female enrolments are as low as 10% (Hopkins and Berkers 2019). Women are more likely to have completed a post-graduate qualification in screen composition than men are (Strong and Cannizzo 2017, pp. 34-39; Strong and Cannizzo 2019; Gauthier and Freeman 2018, p. vii), making them more highly qualified than the men in their field. Despite this, men's 'homosocial' networks - colloquially referred to by respondents in the above surveys as 'the boys' club' - disadvantage women's career entry, progression, and longevity (Strong and Raine 2019, p. 59; Hopkins and Berkers 2019, p. 49). Added to this, these surveys and others have found that a disproportionate share of childcare falls to women in the screen industries, due to a prevalent lack of structural support for balancing work and family in a workplace populated chiefly by freelancers, which has a negative impact on their careers (Verhoeven et al. 2018; Strong and Raine 2019, p. 4; Strong and Cannizzo 2017 pp. 48-51; Gauthier and Freeman 2018, p. ix).

Sexist attitudes and sexual harassment continue to disrupt women's wellbeing and career advancement (Hopkins and Berkers 2019; Gauthier and Freeman 2018; Strong and Cannizzo 2017), although survey respondents acknowledged that these behaviours are now less acceptable than they were 15 or 20 years ago - a probable positive effect of the current 'call-out culture' in the entertainment industries spearheaded by #MeToo (2017). That said, this relatively recent reduction in the acceptability of sexist workplace behaviour contrasts with the difficult and at times dangerous conditions women screen composers endured in previous generations, which must go some way to explaining the lack of senior female role models in this profession (Strong and Raine 2019; Strong and Cannizzo 2017; Hopkins and Berkers 2019; Gauthier and Freeman 2018).

And finally, the question of gatekeepers must be raised (Hooper 2019). For female screen composers, these are the studio executives, the film producers, the directors, the music producers, the agents, the publishers, and indeed, other composers, who collectively play a significant role in either preventing or facilitating access to networks and opportunities that are vital to building a career (Strong and Raine 2019, p. 8). Music industry initiatives such as PRS Foundation's 'Keychange' (Keychange 2018) and film industry initiatives such as Screen Australia's 'Gender Matters' (Screen Australia 2015) seek to disrupt reflexive gatekeeping practices (i.e. men hiring other men from within their networks), by encouraging organisations and projects to implement more equitable gender targets in their programming and funding decisions. While these laudable programmes are making necessary change for targeted groups (Keychange 2020; Screen Australia 2019), specific work is now needed to place more women composers into screen productions, as passively relying on the assumed trickle-down effect resulting from providing increased opportunity to female producers, directors, and writers has not translated to significantly higher levels of employment for women in 'below-the-line' roles, such as cinematographers and composers (Bizzaca 2019; Follows et al. 2016, p. 32). And certainly, as long as people in leadership and gatekeeping positions in the music and screen industries remain predominantly male (Bain 2019; Smith et al. 2018 and 2020; Follows et al. 2016), these industries will not open up in any significant way to female-identifying composers. Which brings us back to Guðnadóttir's Oscar acceptance speech; it stands to reason that if women cannot see themselves as successful in screen composing careers they will not feel encouraged to attempt this career path. By using her platform to exhort all women to speak up, she stood as a valuable role model to counter the lack of female visibility identified as detrimental to women's career progression in this field.


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