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Sexism in music: 'What guitar does your boyfriend have?'

Friday 25th May 2018

How hard is it for New Zealand women to rock the music world? Ahead of a Music Month Summit on issues in the industry, The Wireless explores sexism in song.

While buying guitar strings, the shop assistant asked Julia Deans, 'What sort of guitar does your boyfriend have?'

RNZ/ Claire Eastham-Farrelly

On a capriciously windy day, JessB sits at a kitchen table at Roundhead Studios in Auckland musing on her rise to the top of Kiwi Hip Hop. Chandeliers hang above the rapper, whose fresh rhymes and colourful styles have brought her to the forefront of the scene at breakneck speed, garnering her fans and praise aplenty.

She is due to speak at the New Zealand Music Month Summit about women and the industry, yet she has no #metoo moment, no nasty memories to share. As a woman in a male dominated genre, her ascent has been remarkably smooth.  “I don’t think that I’ve actually encountered any real sexism. I’ve been really lucky… “I am fully aware that I have had a pretty good experience. Not everyone has.”

Sitting next to her at the long wooden table, rock luminary Julia Deans - best known for fronting Fur Patrol - nods. From a different generation and different genre, her story is also free from obvious sexual discrimination. “I’ve not encountered any nasty, aggressive, or overtly sexist behaviour from people in the industry,” says Deans.

“To be honest, the really crappy or gross treatment has always been from people who are not musos. When I was on the road in Australia I had some horrible experiences with people who worked at some of the venues. I’d have to say to people “stop f***ing hitting on me and f*** off.”

These tales might paint a picture of egalitarian harmony within the New Zealand music scene, but sexism has many guises. Victoria Kelly, a composer and the NZ manager of member services for APRA, is seated at the end of the table. She too has had largely good experiences but says while the people making and performing the music might be supportive, the industry itself is underpinned by “deeply unconscious bias”.


“Women in music are in a deep minority, especially older women,” she says. “There are a lot of women who work in music, but very few in positions of power – directorships, or on boards.”

Kelly, who is also speaking at the Music Month Summit, reels off the way unconscious bias plays out in any number of ways when it comes to music in New Zealand. Sexism exists in the male-dominated music labels, the harmful, reductive representations of women in music videos, on the rock radio stations that play more male artists.

“Looking around this table, I see women who are very strong,” says Kelly. “To succeed in this industry, you have to be happy to go into a male dominated field; to not feel uncomfortable being in minority. If you are a woman who needs the solidarity of other women, you are likely to be shut out.”

JessB has filled a woman-shaped hole in the New Zealand hip hop scene, but she looks around and finds herself alone. “Maybe there is only one allowed,” she says.

RNZ/ Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Indeed, if you start digging for statistics, you find a snapshot of an industry where women are underpaid, underrepresented, and underappreciated. APRA recently revealed that only 21 percent of the members registered as writers were women. Delve deeper and you’ll find these women only receive 10 percent of the total pool of songwriter royalties. From 2007-2016, 28 percent of the total nominees for the New Zealand Music Awards were women.

Still, inroads have been made. In earlier decades, female musos weren’t even allowed to join a musician’s union – no membership, no gigs. Fast forward to 2018 and most of our major international players are women: Lorde has made a tsunami-sized splash in the sea of international pop; Aldous Harding’s and Nadia Reid’s earth-shattering talents have sent the world’s music press into paroxysms.

But look to the power positions and you’ll find men, and it’s these men who shape the industry. Only one New Zealand woman really bucks the trend of men at the top. Kim Boshier hasn’t just pushed the envelope, she’s ripped it up. As head of Sony Music in New Zealand, she’s the first - and only - female label head in Australasia, and she’s seriously succeeding: Sony New Zealand is the top performing country in the southeast Asia region, outperforming 14 others.


While JessB may have avoided overt sexism in her musical journey, she acknowledges that without the support of influential men, she wouldn’t be where she is today. She’s been championed by NZ hip-hop legend P-Money (“He’s been the best thing for my career,”), she’s performed with SWIDT, and David Dallas picked her to perform on his Red Bull’s Studio 64 bars series (the first woman to do so).

“I think that most successful female musicians have been championed by a male with influence in the industry. It’s definitely been guys who have helped me along the way,” she says.

She’s also aware she may be buffered from the “real world” by the strength of her online networks. “This is the age of female creatives, and the internet has allowed that. I have a great community of women of colour online, and a huge support network.”

Yet, she does realise she’s the only female New Zealand hip-hop star. “Maybe there is only one allowed,” she says.


Deans may not have encountered sexism from other musicians but she has still encountered it and it was jarring. “The amount of times I’ve had people ask me ‘which member of the band is your bf’, when I was the head of the band, is crazy.”

Victoria Kelly says the music industry is underpinned by “deeply unconscious bias”.


One of her most irksome recollections occurred she was buying guitar strings at a music store. “There was a woman behind the counter. She asked me what sort of guitar does your boyfriend have. I could have leant over and grabbed her.”

Deans feels that earlier in her career, it was common for industry people to cultivate a combative attitude between women musicians. “I can remember people saying; ‘we love your act, but we already have another female-fronted woman in the label’.”

“There is a bigger question here,” says Kelly of Dean’s experience. “Why does a festival organiser think that New Zealand music goers are not interested in seeing female performers? At least 50 percent of festival goers are women.”

It’s a hard question to answer. How do you tackle such attitudes? How do you tackle the wider issues of underrepresentation and pay?

“We need to re-educate the public, to empower women to put their foot down and say, ‘don’t treat me like that’,” says Deans. “I have had girls say to me ‘it’s too scary’ to say anything. We need to change that.”

There is no formal support network for New Zealand women in music, but there is an informal community of fellow travellers who want to help. Deans’ network includes Mel Parsons, Tammy Neilson, and Anna Coddington. “If any of us are unsure of a situation we’ll call each other up and have a bitch,” Deans laughs.  

When Deans tours her new album, We Light Fire, in August, she will have local women artists as support acts in each centre. She doesn’t see this as “championing women” but as finding people who are great at music and giving them a platform.

Kelly has to go (she has a meeting with Neil Finn, who she arranged and orchestrated songs for last year’s much lauded Out of Silence solo album), but before she heads back out into the wind, she provides an astute summation: “There are two sides to this. At the coal face, women are working alongside men as professionals without many issues. But from a wider perspective, sexism exists because the audience is conditioned to buy what they think they should buy. This is a top down problem. People are convinced of what they should like by the people who hold power in industry. The people who control the media.

“Imagery, even if just subtly denigrating of women, is constantly presented to us. Women are constantly objectified. If women musicians are not buying into this image, they need to make an impact so strong it can’t be denied.”

The Women in Music session is on at the New Zealand Music Month Summit on May 26. JessB and Victoria Kelly will share their thoughts on sexism in New Zealand music, alongside Pacific music champion Petrina Togi-Sa’ena and Sony MD Kim Boshier.



Join the discussion »

“There is so much wrong with this article it's difficult to know where to start, it is like reading, and I hate this fact but it's true, accounts of the sham trials of Stalinist Russia.
The three women sitting around the table all so they have had good experiences, so where does that leave the writer with an SJW axe to grind? Less women get involved in the music industry and they make less of the share of royalties.
Surprise surprise genius.
I'm a musician, I've never bothered with APRA.
Most who have make a joke amount out of it. My choice to make music a major part of my life has cost me dearly.
The way of music is not for the faint of heart, poverty is a constant companion.
In my experience many women just aren't that up for it.
They tend to be seekers of comfort, and they tend to value security and comfortable surroundings and to dislike precarious or unstable lifestyles.
Now enter the ideological hobby horse, "gender is just a construct", f'ing BS.
We all know the reality is far from that and men and women are quite different in certain respects, have different priorities, and that on the whole men don't ask permission to express themselves, they just get on with it and they'll endure what ever they have to to get where they want to be.
Women, not so much, blame cultural conditioning if you like, but the whole point of radical self expression is to disregard cultural conditioning and think for your self.
No one is going to lay out the red carpet for you, throw petals at your feet. Stop whining and get on with it.” — Q Bert

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Joanna Mathers is a freelance writer based in Auckland. She is particularly interested in social issues, music and pop culture.
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