Is 'Raised Consciousness' Enough to Tackle Discrimination and Abuse in Ireland's Music Industries?

In a conversation with Marian Finucane in October 2019, Head of Department, Work and Employment Studies and a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick, Christine Cross stated that it is difficult to quantify how the so called ‘#MeToo movement’ has impacted Irish workplaces. She does say that it “has raised a level of consciousness about the issue that was not there before”. Awareness is important, which may contribute to higher levels of complaints made by victims in the workplace. Visibility of an issue in everyday practice can potentially normalise discourse, mitigate stigma, and prompt conversations between co-workers within their workplace environment. In the same interview, Cross points out an unintended consequence of increased visibility whereby some men are avoiding one-to-one interactions with women at work.

With uncertainly as to what effect the increased visibility of the prevalence of gender discrimination and harassment at work has had on Irish workplaces, it feels as if Ireland’s professional industries are missing out on an opportunity to engage in sincere introspection.

Sexual harassment exists in Ireland’s music industries

Personally, I have experienced bullying from colleagues at work, and I’ve felt the pain of disappointment when my complaints were ignored by management. I’ve held my tongue between my teeth as senior managers strolled into the office, hands in their pockets and the word ‘ladies’ falling from their lips as they looked down at our cubicles. An editor, who I was freelancing for, once implied that they would be willing to be my personal photographer for my other job, which involves publishing erotic media. They have zero photography experience, but obviously felt emboldened enough to try to impersonate a photographer so that they could get their jollies for free.

When I was co-presenting a weekday breakfast show in college, my co-host insisted on beginning every broadcast by first introducing themselves, and then introducing me as ‘The Lovely Yvonne’, as if I was their lovely assistant, ready to by cut into three pieces with a smile on my face. In one of our radio assessments, our lecturer pointed out to him that he was constantly interrupting me during the broadcast, and I was acutely aware of how different the broadcast would have been if I had not been a woman, or if he had not been a man.

There have been hundreds of microaggressions, and a few larger traumas at the hands of peers in the education, media and music industries in the last four years that I’ve been working in the private sector, public sector, and freelancing. However I tend to ignore my own experiences, and focus on the experiences of others. All of the women that I’ve interviewed, who have made music their musical livelihoods in various ways in Ireland, have described their own traumas at work. Male mentors who have treated them differently as women, in some cases attempting inappropriate sexual behaviour. Sound engineers forcing women to give up control of their work at a live performance. Lecturers in music degrees discouraging women from making music that sounds too feminine, or too emotional. Feeling as if they cannot address discrimination for fear of being labelled ‘hard to work with’. Being groped backstage, on dancefloors, and being unable to meaningfully communicate their experiences to male colleagues because of a stifling workplace culture. When you care to look and listen, the extent of how rotten the core of our music industries are, and how many voices are deserving of a platform becomes clearer. Yet it feels as if we are standing still.

The Department of Justice and Equality would seem an obvious place to look for an indication of high level intentions to address discrimination and harassment at work. On the department’s website there are 16 consultations which have now closed, and four which remain open. One of these consultations, which opened in late 2016, indicates some relationship to addressing harassment at work: The National Women’s Strategy, led by Fine Gael’s Francis Fitzgerald, then Tánaiste, and Fine Gael’s David Stanton.

“There can be no place in a modern society for intolerance, discrimination, inequality or exclusion … Our collaborative efforts can lead to the identification of problems and impediments to progress and inclusion, but, more importantly, our combined resources can mobilise resources for change and ensure a better society for all.”

David Stanton, Minister of State with special responsibility for Equality, Immigration & Integration,speaking on 29 September 2016

“This is an important opportunity for everyone to inform and assist in shaping national policy to 2020,to ensure continued progress is made towards a society in which women enjoy equality with men and are empowered to achieve their full potential.”

Frances Fitzgerald TD, (former) Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, 2017

The call for submissions states: “We propose that the next Strategy should set out to achieve the following over the four years from 2017 to 2020: to change attitudes and practices preventing women’s and girls’ full participation in education, employment and public life, at all levels, and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to the needs of those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes.”

‘To change attitudes and practices’ that ‘prevent full participation’ in employment

The National Strategy for Women and Girls was published in May 2017. In its 84 pages, the Strategy “sets this ambitious vision for the Ireland of 2021”, for the following areas, to “promote women’s equality in the workplace” (Francis Fitzgerald, 2017) and other areas in society:

“The Strategy is intended to respond to women’s needs across a diversity of identities and situations. It focuses on the needs of working women by proposing to continue to increase investment in childcare, to take action to tackle the gender pay gap, to improve the conditions of women in precarious employment, and to provide additional help to women entrepreneurs. Lone parents and socially excluded women will have improved access to education, training and employment opportunities as a result of this Strategy.”

There is one mention of the arts in Ireland having a place in the Strategy, but it does not mention (i) music industries, or (ii) sexual harassment. It purely strives for greater visibility in media industries, primarily film and broadcasting.

Page 54

Objective five (page 63) is to combat violence against women. There is no mention of an intention to address sexual violence in the workplace in this section.

Regarding employment, the Strategy overwhelmingly deals with gender parity, a gender pay gap, representation at board level, and supports for women entrepreneurs. The focus is more so on the attitudes and practices which affect the economic outcomes of working women in Irish society, and prevent full participation in wealth creation. There is absolutely no attention directed towards the attitudes and practices which enable cultures of sexual violence, abuse, misconduct, and harassment in workplaces.

We have no official reporting structure, no strategy, and no data

But, there has to be some kind of initiative in place to address workplace sexual harassment and abuse at policy level. In law, The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 are where we can find a fundamental acknowledgement of our nation’s legislative values on this topic. Harassment can be “unwanted conduct” relating to:

  • Gender
  • Civil status
  • Family status, for example, as a parent of a child
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religious belief
  • Membership of the Traveller community

And sexual harassment is any form of “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” (Citizens Information). We have law. But no strategy, or published commitment at the top where power lies.

A new report from the Musicians Union in the UK published in 2019 states that almost half of its 31,000 members have experienced harassment at work, and most members do not report the incidents.

We are aware of far too many cases of talented musicians, particularly young or emerging artists, leaving the industry altogether due to sexism, sexual harassment or abuse,” said the union’s deputy general secretary Naomi Pohl. “Survivors are often unable to speak out because the consequences for their career or personal life are devastating. In most cases we’re aware of, the survivor ends up leaving the workplace or the industry and there are very few consequences for the perpetrator.”

Closer to home, the Musicians Union of Ireland has not conducted a survey of members experiences. However as research shows time and time again, harassment, abuse and discrimination are problems which are not territory specific in music. In a massive nationwide survey conducted by researchers at Berklee School of Music, Boston, the experiences of women across all sectors and levels of the US music industry were laid bare. Women in the US Music Industry found that women “overwhelmingly agreed that they had been treated differently within the music industry (78 percent), while over half of respondents felt that their gender had affected their employment (52 percent). These numbers were more pronounced among women who identified themselves as self-employed or freelancers” (Berklee press release, 2019). Read the full report here.

The most commonly cited barrier to career development by the 2,000+ respondents was gender discrimination, harassment, and abuse, and this was also found to be the biggest challenge facing women at work, with 45% highlighting it as a top concern.

Sexual harassment does exist in Ireland’s music industries, and we know that cultures which enable discrimination, abuse, and silence exist. But without any official reporting structures, no government strategy, and no data, it is impossible for anything to change. We merely continue to speak about it. And the best that we can do, in 2019, is acknowledge that a viral movement from 2017 has possibly increased awareness of these issues in our workplaces. But we have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about. Furthermore, we have no knowledge as to how the people working in our music industries, in particular women and other marginalised groups, are coping with unaddressed, continuing trauma.

I find this article by Jillian Mapes in Pitchfork very moving, and a well written account of how the victims in music have addressed their trauma and experiences with sexual assault. It can sometimes feel as if the names of accused take centre stage rather than those who have been brave enough to raise their voice. I propose that before we continue talking about how wonderful Irish music is 2020 and how healthy it is, we make an effort to meet up, put our heads together, and address the fact that we have no strategy, no reporting structures, no data, and no clue as to what is happening to those who work hard to keep the music alive. Because ‘raised consciousness’ simply won’t cut it.

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