FairPlé: sounding out for gender justice

The Writing Is on the Wall: the Fairplé Rising Tides Conference was tracked in a graphic wall display (Photo: Fonn).

FairPlé campaign highlights issues of gender in folk and traditional music

A key element of traditional music is its mission of cultural conservation with an understanding of its historical and social context. Perhaps because its subject matter tends to reflect a more gender-rigid era, the traditional music scene – at least at the professional end of the spectrum – seems to have been slow to embrace the kind of gender equality that is widely accepted in other areas of modern society.

While women working in Irish traditional and folk music had begun to reflect on the under-representation of women within the paid ranks of the sector, the matter was brought to a head at a benefit for the Armagh Pipers’ Club in Liberty Hall, Dublin, in January 2018 when Karan Casey decided to highlight from the stage that of the eighteen performers appearing that evening – either as soloists or in groups – she was the only female.

Her intention was not to cause any embarrassment to the Armagh Pipers’ Club or to the other performers – her husband Niall Vallely and his family have a long association with the club – but to finally call out an issue that had become increasingly troubling for her and many of the other women who try to make a living in traditional music.

Last summer, traditional singer, Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, had gone on social media to draw attention to the male-dominated line-up at a gig at the INEC in Killarney. Her public post added further fuel to the conversations that were already taking place among female performers, in particular, about gender issues within Irish traditional and folk music – against the backdrop of the renewed focus on the #MeToo movement in the entertainment and cultural sectors.

With the affirmation that she was not alone in questioning the prevailing orthodoxy of discrimination, Karan Casey felt confident in speaking out from the stage of Liberty Hall. And so Padraigín’s spark became a flame fanned by the breath of Karan’s courageous words. While she encountered some negativity on social media from advocates of chauvinism and misogyny, the response to Casey’s comments from most of the women (and indeed a number of men) in the traditional music community was overwhelmingly supportive and constructive.

A core group of female performers quickly began to coalesce around the idea of moving the debate forward to consider the practical steps needed to promote change. This group includes Pauline Scanlon, Úna Monaghan, Síle Denvir, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Niamh Dunne. And so FairPlé was born – with the active encouragement of many of their male colleagues, partners and band-mates. And the more they discussed the issues for women in music, the more they came to realise that they were dealing with a number of interlocking factors. So headcount is an issue – but it arises at the end of a lengthy process of education and career development, involving significant barriers or restrictions on opportunity along the way – based on gender.

Furthermore, these barriers exist not just for performers but also in other related areas within the sector – such as management, promotional staff, sound and other support crew – both in venues and in studios. A cursory review of gender representation on the programmes for the major folk and traditional music festivals during this year revealed that for every female performer, there were three males. Not only were the overall numbers skewed against women – but their roles also appeared to be very specifically determined.

Few women perform solely as instrumentalists. The vast majority of the women are singers – some of whom also play an instrument. Even the instruments women play professionally could be said to be gendered. Women are accepted as players of the fiddle, flute and whistle – but playing guitar and other stringed instruments like banjo and bouzouki is less common, especially in a band context – while female uilleann pipers are still extremely rare

Sisters in Song: Comrades-in-Arms: Niamh Dunne (left) and Karan Casey at FairPlé’s Rising Tides Conference (Photo: Fonn).

The under-representation of female performers in the professional ranks raises questions about supply and demand. Is the problem a matter of bias – conscious or otherwise – on the part of the promoters, agents and managers, or is it due to the absence of female musicians of sufficient quality?

Preliminary evidence from music schools and colleges suggests that there is no lack of highly proficient female students in all of the traditional music disciplines. The problem seems to arise in making the transition to become paid performers. Many very talented young women do not currently see a future for themselves within the sector in the same way that their male counterparts do.

While some may argue that this is a matter of personal choice for the young women concerned, it is hard to believe that the persistent absence of women at this level of traditional music is a matter of random chance. There can be little doubt that reactionary attitudes and lazy social stereotypes – as well as what might be called the prevailing culture – in parts of the traditional music community also play a significant role.

There is also evidence of unconscious bias on the part of some promoters and bookers – which seems to have been based on previous custom and practice or lack of awareness. Some of the festival organisers contacted by FairPlé this year, were blissfully unaware of the under-representation of women in the programmes they were promoting. Many were shocked when the disparity was pointed out to them – and some have now resolved to do work with FairPlé to do better in future.

Some male musicians have also begun to take the concerns of their female colleagues more seriously since the campaign began to gather momentum. A number of prominent male performers have identified publicly with the FairPlé campaign, including Martin Hayes, Dónal Lunny, Damien Dempsey and John Spillane.

As the discussions within the FairPlé team intensified, they recognised that while the problem manifests itself in many different ways, the underlying issue is lack of respect – running on a scale from unwitting thoughtlessness through contempt to full-blown misogyny with their associated behaviours involving crude innuendo through gender discrimination and harassment right up to sexual assault.

In this sense, the issues may affect women involved in all areas of traditional music – not only those working in a professional context, but also those participating in more informal settings like seisiúin, either as performers or listeners. So FairPlé is tackling these problems on a number of levels. By raising awareness generally, they aim to begin to change the culture within the traditional music community so that discriminatory attitudes and behaviours will no longer be accepted.

In order to provide evidence of the need for change, traditional harper and researcher, Dr. Úna Monaghan, has already begun to collate responses from women involved in all aspects of the traditional music community – recounting their personal experiences of discrimination as performers or audience members in both paid and unpaid settings. She intends to publish the testimonies in book form.

The FairPlé team is also keen for further research to examine why talented female musicians are discouraged from pursuing a professional or semi-professional career in traditional music.

As for women who wish to pursue a career in music, despite all the obstacles, FairPlé is building a comprehensive online database of female artists and technicians: so that, in future, a producer or promoter of a music event will no longer be able to plead ignorance when it comes to hiring women. The database project is being financially underwritten by the band, Beóga.

Speaking out for Women’s Rights: Lynette Fay (Session chair), with panellists: Dermot McLaughlin, Liz Doherty, Peter Cosgrove and Eleanor McEvoy. (Photo: Fonn)

Women at work

FairPlé aims to overcome problems facing female performers

As paid performers are often regarded as role models for others in the traditional music community, FairPlé’s efforts to bring about a culture shift within the sector has a particular focus on the treatment of women at the sector’s professional end. So the FairPlé campaign is examining how key principles of employment rights can be applied to provide protection against discrimination and other potential workplace abuses.

In discussions with the Arts Council on the need for a wide-ranging policy on inclusion within the arts generally, there is a widely held consensus that the entitlement to equal treatment in the workplace – which had been established decades ago – seems to have been slow to come into effect in arts-related occupations. Perhaps in part because so much of employment in the cultural space is considered to be atypical. The legal definitions of what constitutes an employer, a workplace or even an employee/worker may not be quite so clear-cut, with the result that often no effort is made to consider them.

Many professional artists have tended to regard themselves as self-employed or as ‘sole traders, rather than someone engaged in selling their labour for hire to another. The lack of clarity in this area was compounded by a ruling by the Competition Authority that prohibited certain categories of freelance workers including musicians, actors and journalists from taking collective action to negotiate minimum rates.

Adopting the sole trader concept, the Competition Authority held that each musician or actor was in effect a business unit in their own right. Businesses combining to try to establish rates were deemed to be a cartel and, therefore, anti-competitive. However, recent amendments to labour law in Ireland have created new opportunities for workplace protection for freelance musicians, actors and journalists – as long as they get organised, in the Musicians’ Union of Ireland, for example.

In many respects, working full- or part-time in music is atypical – though perhaps less so nowadays with the advent of the “gig economy” in more conventional areas of employment. Unions like the MUI have acquired considerable expertise in representing workers in a wide range of atypical employment scenarios. The Musicians’ Union also benefits from its relationships with other organisations involved in representing cultural workers – such as Irish Actors Equity, the Association of Irish Composers and the Irish Writers’ Union – as well as the National Union of Journalists and SIPTU’s Film and Entertainment section.

The FairPlé campaign is an object lesson in what can be achieved when individuals, who might otherwise be considered to be in precarious employment situations, come together around a common purpose. Solidarity is the key. And while for many musicians, their more natural way of working may be as soloists or in very small groups, this may leave them vulnerable to various forms of exploitation or abuse. There is safety in numbers, or unity is strength, as the traditional labour saying goes.

Speaking out for Women’s Rights: Úna Monaghan, Pauline Scanlon, Paul Henry (SIPTU) and Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, Chair of the National Women’s Council. (Photo: Fonn)

From the malign to the ridiculous

Sexism is one tradition that is not worth preserving

Sexism within the traditional music community appears in many forms. At the more extreme end of the spectrum is the harrowing account by Pauline Scanlon at the recent Rising Tides Conference held by FairPlé in association with the Musicians’ Union of Ireland (MUI).

Pauline related how she had been groped violently on the coach during a tour on mainland Europe involving a number of Irish bands. The shocking encounter not only bruised her physically but left her emotionally bruised as she considered her response to the assault. Like many women with similar experiences, she wondered if she had somehow invited the attack?

Reliving the moments that led up to the attack, she went through the checklist that many survivors of sexual assault consider, as if somehow they were to blame for their own suffering: What had she said? What gestures or other movements had she made? What was her general demeanour and body language? Had she unwittingly encouraged or led the perpetrator on in any way?

So having satisfied herself that she was not to blame for the assault, the next question was should she name and shame the perpetrator? Should she initiate proceedings which could destroy his career and inflict collateral damage on his family? Moreover, should she put herself through the trauma of possible court proceedings, which even if successful, would most likely result in her acquiring a reputation as a “difficult” woman, based on the experience of many women before her.

The choices facing any victim of sexual assault are rarely easy. But in the rather enclosed world of Irish traditional and folk music, where there is no such thing as anonymity, it becomes even more difficult. So after much agonising Pauline decided in the end not to name and shame her attacker publicly.

While no-one could argue with the choice she eventually made, there remains a residual sense of outrage that the perpetrator managed to escape scot-free. That is why Pauline and her colleagues in FairPlé are committed to build a new culture – underpinned by appropriate guidelines and procedures – to prevent such assaults or other forms of harassment happening in the first place.

This new culture will be based on a collective understanding of what constitutes appropriate behaviour: it should also involve a collective response in cases of inappropriate behaviour – to ensure that victims are no longer feel isolated in confronting decisions about how they wish to respond if they do suffer an assault.

Sexual assault is at the more extreme end of the spectrum of disrespect towards women in music. But at the more ridiculous end of the spectrum – but one which seems to be typical of the low-level – but nevertheless undermining – insults that women regularly have to deal with is this story from Eleanor McEvoy at the Rising Tides Conference.

In a music shop to buy thirty sets of guitar strings in preparation for an upcoming tour she was asked by the man behind the counter if she was buying the strings to make necklaces! Eleanor recounted a further incident of a similar nature involving a builder employed to carry out some work at her home. On noticing the large number of guitars in the house, he asked her if her boyfriend liked to play guitar.

Sexism – from the malign to the ridiculous – is not acceptable at any level by men or women.

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