“Wow you’re ACTUALLY really good at guitar for a girl!!!” The pros and cons to being female in the male-dominated world of music. A personal perspective of my journey on this side of the divide, fighting the stereotype that girls can’t play. Everything from the constant ads; “Guitarist wanted: 18-24 and Male”, the popular nickname of ‘Bethany Big Tits’ and people refusing to acknowledge me or shake my hand, to being able to take advantage of ‘Women in Music’ events and the hashtag: #girlswhoplayguitar
As a young musician
It’s only now looking back that I realise being female was harder when everyone around me were male 16-19 year olds. It was incredibly intimidating when the behaviour towards me seemed exclusively emotionally cold, and yet sexually charged. The behaviour from several bandmates was outright bullying, absolutely everything I said and did was criticised. My nickname was ‘silly bitch’ and a popular game was to try and guess my bra size.
As an obese 16 year old, my self-esteem was in the gutter, and I don’t doubt that I painted a target onto myself with my broken demeanour, desperation to be liked, and my willingness to go along with the ‘jokes’ even when they ended with destruction of my property or physical injury to me. But there were other girls I knew of in the same scene, all of whom were targeted as well. We we’re all the butt of the joke, seen as vastly incompetent, while the boys seemed to have a loving and gentle camaraderie with one another.
I attribute this more to immaturity and social incompetence pushed through the filter of the gender divide, rather than the gender divide itself. Everything about popular culture in the 00’s encouraged low self-esteem in all teenagers, but especially girls; from unrealistic beauty standards, demonising girls that are loud or assertive and normalising the idea that a girl with low self-esteem is “cute”.
But it’s exactly this soft, typically-feminine demeanour that ended up holding me back in such a harsh, critical and intense environment.
If my experience is a common one for other teenage girls, trying to take their first steps as musicians, then it’s no wonder that we end up with so fewer female musicians at the end. And it’s everyone who suffers when we lose so much raw talent from an entire demograph of people that have something important to share with the world-simply because they are raised and programmed to be too soft to fight back and hold their own.
I’ve struggled with eating disorders and body image for as long as I can remember, from being seriously underweight and convinced I was fat, to tripling in weight in a few years, and becoming obese amid crash diets and bulimia. This is the world I grew up in after all; Either you were skinny and pretty, or you were an unlovable failure.
So I found it hard to express the gravity of what I was feeling in Uni when I was unearthed into the world that was apparently obsessed with attractiveness and ranking people out of 10. There were sly comments about my weight. There were more comments about the size of my boobs. I was the only female guitarist in my class with about 25 other boys, as we listened to our esteemed tutor tell everyone to score fat girls, because they try harder in bed. He briefly made eye contact with me, and I don’t know whether he looked at me in guilt because I was a fat girl, or was checking to see if I was laughing with everyone else. I just sat self-consciously waiting for the laughing to stop.
It was only after a couple of years I was told my secret nickname was Bethany Big Tits, or BBT for short. I told my best friend, and we absolutely howled with laughter. To this day she still calls me BBT. This I have no problem with, she’s my friend, and it’s a joke about my weird, short, oddly proportioned body that we share together. What would play on my mind for nights to come was that people were snidely calling me derogatory names behind my back for years, most of whom had never said a word to my face.
I was top of my class in my first year but privately struggling mentally, to the point where I had a complete breakdown and had to seek counselling. I was being badly bullied in my student home, hours away from family and friends. Rumours were being spread about me, people going round claiming I had slept with them, I felt like everyone was laughing at me behind my back. I had absolutely no-one to turn to. The only ones who reached out to me in friendship turned out to apparently only have wanted romantic or sexual relations. Without a support network of people who truly cared for me as a person, I struggled, and deteriorated, and my studies and music projects began to suffer massively.
Young boys, especially musicians, have the highest percentile of people with mental illness, and have to struggle with esteem issues of their own. As a mother hen personality, I listened to a lot of their stories, and helped pick a few of them up. But I never got the same in return. Young boys are generally not encouraged to offer gentleness, or emotional help to those around them. Never is it seen as the norm for boys to reach out to girls to offer emotional support, as girls are naturally taught to do for each other, as simply friends, as equals, with 0 underlying sexual agenda.
Sadly, boys are often not even given the right to be honest and open about their own emotions without societal judgement, causing some to bottle their negativity up so it can resurface as bullying or belittling behaviour, or desperate moments of reaching out to me secretly for maternal and emotional comfort, and then walking away as soon as my use as a private agony aunt was fulfilled.
I can understand fully why there are so few female musicians that make it through to their 20’s still holding on to their dreams. It’s such weary work constantly navigating the minefield of what people are thinking about you when you’re always sticking out like a sore thumb no matter what you do. The only silver lining is that I suppose I walked away much stronger than when I started.
Girls can’t play guitar
This stereotype that girls can’t play guitar has affected me a lot: When I was younger I was so paranoid of being not good enough, of being laughed at for being a girl trying to play as good as the boys, and failing. I spent so long learning how to shred, how to solo, how to play super-fast and do pointless tricks: even though I hate all of that. I felt like I had a point to prove, I had to hold up my side and represent females as good musicians.
Now that I’m older, I’ve trained myself to become a solid, well rounded player, dropping all of the shredding and gimmicks and developing more of a unique style of fast picking, odd/ambient chords, finger picking, looping, and programming. But even now that I know that I’m a good (not amazing, but good) musician, I have to fight to prove that to everyone else.
When a man gets onstage, there’s generally no assumption as to whether he will be good or not on looks alone. When I or any other girl gets on stage, we’re at the lower end of people’s expectations before we even play. I know this because of how empty the room suddenly gets when I first get up onstage, and the bored patronising demeanour of those watching me set up and prepare to play. I know this because of the stunned and excited reactions of a crowd when I or another woman plays and is a decent musician. I know this because of the dozens of times people have come up to me and said something along the lines of “wow I’m so amazed/surprised, I didn’t expect you to be able to play like that at all.” I know they’re being nice, which is why I hold my tongue and don’t reply with “Why not? What did you expect then?”
My number one regret is that I wasn’t bossy enough. I fell into that fear of the stigma that women have. Desperate to not be seen as ‘bossy’ because if you become known as the bossy bitch, you just get blacklisted, bitched about, and shut off from everyone and every opportunity.
And can we talk about this weird common occurrence of all of the admin/business/secretary work being immediately offloaded onto the female band member? This has been the case in every single band I’ve been in. But I know it’s not just me, I’ve bonded with so many female musicians over this, coining the phrase “band-mother” with weary amusement.
Every single band I’ve been in, not only have I ended up running the band completely by myself despite my best efforts, I would also go into band practices begging and pleading and wheedling just to get everyone else to be even slightly productive. Learning other people’s parts on their instrument so that I could go in and re-teach it to them repeatedly. Sorting out a band practice after weeks of cajoling and going back and forth, for members to then turn up with a face like a slapped arse, not playing the parts correctly, as if them just turning up was an annoyance, that I was forcing them into, like some fussy mum.
I was just in constant awe of endless musicians acting like it’s their #1 dream to be in a band, and then acting like I’m a dictating bitch when I meekly asked them to do a fraction of the work that actually needed to be done. I was not allowed to get annoyed or demand and make ultimatums to these people that were wasting my time-not without them exploding with defensiveness and turning it all onto me.
I had to just walk away and start from square one, over and over again.
It’s funny, since I was young, the only thing I wanted was to be in a band, but the moment I finally gave up and struck out on my own as a solo artist, that’s when immediately my career exploded. I finally had time to concentrate on myself rather than running around after everyone else like a mother, refining my own craft instead of gently encouraging others to catch up at an absolute agonising snail’s pace. Without a band I was signed to a record label within a year, and going at breakneck speed since then.
My point is that this imbalance of frequently offloading all work onto the female band member, while simultaneously resenting them for taking command of everything, is one of the most horrible scenarios I’ve ever been in. Society has created this environment where boys are discouraged from being passionate, emotionally invested, vulnerable, and humble instead of defensive. We discourage in men the very traits that make them easier to work with as band members.
As much as I was desperate for help and constantly asking for input, as much as it’s not what I wanted to do; I could just about handle being the babysitting band-mother, and doing everything for everyone. What I couldn’t handle was their defensiveness, and unwillingness to do the work OR let me take control. That was the final straw that just made it unbearable. I had to walk away from my childhood dream because every single band I was in had this same toxic environment no matter what I tried, and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Working as a professional musician
Since Uni I’ve worked a few different jobs in music: as a radio host, as a paid musician, as a promoter, as a session singer, as a sound engineer. The sound engineer job is an interesting case study, because undoubtedly I was subject to situations that purely stemmed from me being female. I would run an open mic night, and the amount of time it did not occur to people that I was in charge, despite me setting up all of the equipment, lights and PA onstage, and then sitting at the sound engineers podium. The amount of times I heard ‘So when does the guy in charge get here?/Can you give a message to the sound engineer?’ Despite it being glaringly obvious that “the guy” and the sound engineer was me.
I had musicians explain to me most basic rules about live sound or setting up equipment, implying that I don’t know what I’m doing, despite it being my job. I was repeatedly grabbed, crushed into tight hugs with complete strangers, and called names if I had to remind people of the rules. We have time slots, and an 11pm cut off point because of neighbours, and yet people repeatedly took the piss and did whatever they wanted, it seems they had no reason to respect the authority of a chubby little 4ft9 girl. Repeatedly we went past 11pm, something the other male sound engineer never had a problem with. After 1 particularly bad night I nearly lost my job. As I left that night I was grabbed and groped by one of the musicians, but that’s another story I suppose.
Looking back at my professional career so far and seeing it littered with instances of being outright ignored, belittled & put down with cutesy names, assumed to be completely thick or ignorant of the most basic fundamentals of my job, of people shaking the hand of the male that happens to be standing next to me and then never even glancing in my direction even though I’m the one in charge. But honestly I think I’m one of the lucky ones. Every employer I’ve had and everyone I’ve worked with closely at a professional level have been kind enough to treat me as an equal, and have never made me feel uncomfortable. I hope that it’s a sign of better times, and not just a rare exception to the many horror stories I’ve heard from other women in music.
What about the perks of being a female musician?
There are perks, not from being female in itself, but simply from being in an exclusive and rare group. I have played several gigs where not only am I the only female playing onstage throughout the entire event, but I’m the only female in the entire building. It’s intimidating and lonely, but the silver lining in the horrible lack of diversity means it probably made me more likely to stand out in people’s memories, regardless of the music. Good for me, bad for the other performers. Unfair to everyone all round, really.
Which then leads us on the minefield of music events aimed purely at showcasing Women in Music. What’s interesting is that even at these events, the crowd and lineup of people playing in the bands is still around 50/50, male to female, maybe 60/40 with still more males present. With everyone mingled together, the vibe at these kinds of events is generally the nicest and most inclusive of any event I’ve been to. But it doesn’t stop every single event getting attacked for being ‘exclusive’ and discriminating against men.
One of the saddest experiences has been organising or taking part in events that raise money for women who are suffering all over the world under appalling oppression and violence, that I as a UK white woman I could never comprehend; and getting abuse for it. People saying that they will not attend the event because the proceeds are going to a women's charity. In my life I've done a lot of charity work, organised and taken part in music events for all sorts of causes: Children, animals, cancer patients, mental health, suicide charities, environmental charities, plus many more. The only time anyone has ever made a fuss, is when we try to raise some money for women in need.
Someone complaining they won’t come as an audience member because there’s an emphasis on females is absolutely ridiculous and childish. But I can understand the frustration of a male artist/male band finding out they can’t play a gig because they’re the wrong gender. I understand because I’ve been there myself, from being turned away from gigs because they ‘already have a feminist band and they don’t want to overdo it’ (??? I don’t talk about feminism in any of my songs) or I’m ‘too similar to another act that’s playing’ (we were completely different genres, we were just both female singer/songwriters).
Most commonly though, I’ve been turned away from even auditioning for bands because I’m female. Presumably because of this weird but very prominent stereotype that women can’t play guitar very well.
For as long as we have promoters that will lump me into a little Monday night ‘female folk night’ that gets 0 promotion instead of putting me into a rock/indie night with the correct genre but only males playing, then we need properly organised large-scale female showcases so that people actually see us. So long as there are adverts like this floating around constantly:
We deserve to have a little extra representation to counter the imbalance. But I think both sides are very much looking forward to the day when it’s not needed anymore.
And then there's social media. There are groups, pages, and hashtags specifically geared to women in music. I’ve delved into all of this, and I would say the effectiveness of it all is pretty overestimated. When it comes down to it the rules are the same as any other social media: If you dive into the world of women in music you find the typical scene of lots of musicians shouting promo out into the ether with very little interaction.
When you look at #girlguitarist, where the most popular videos have 4,000 views, compared to #guitarist, where the most popular videos have 80,000 views, it’s important to remember it’s the best musicians that pull ahead, regardless of anything else. If you look at popular videos of new female musicians getting the most engagement right now, you can see it’s because they are stunning musicians, and not because of any other gimmick.
In terms of my own online presence as a musician, I’ve gotten attention and comments because I’m female, but not the kind of attention that equates to a fan-base or any kind of advantage in my career. The majority of my actual fan-base is female, and a lot of the time I get guys that come across my music online or in person, and instead of interacting with my music social media, they use my music pages to track down my personal account and PM that instead. I get unwanted attention, and I get fans that appreciate my music, the two have always remained pretty separate. Which is a shame, stalkers could at least have the decency to like my music page on the way past…
I think it’s important for all of us to tell our stories, even if they only tell one perspective. It gives us the chance to puzzle piece our experiences together and try to get a picture of what’s actually going on. In the end the main problem with my personal experience is that I’ve been alone in my gender, the only female student, the only female in the band, the only female sound engineer, the only female playing onstage, the only female at the entire gig. It gets pretty lonely, and the added pressure of standing out and being forced to represent your entire sex on your own can really get to you. As I’m sure it does for males in female-heavy career paths.
The balance is shifting, ever so slowly, and I hope someone who takes the same path I did 5 years ago will find a slightly different, more inclusive experience. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic. I just wish that I had been treated like less of an outsider. The fact that not many fellow male musicians reached out in kindness without also apparently wanting me to have sex with them in return, made me suspicious of every male kindness, and served as a kind of feedback loop where I ended up cutting myself off even more, just to be safe.
There’s so much of a communication breakdown between the sexes, so little of addressing the issues, and so much bitterness towards women who take control and try to get things done, that trying to navigate being in a band has been one of the hardest things I’ve tried to do as a human being, ever. And I’m interested to know how common my story is about being bullied, put down, and framed as an outright imbecile that has no clue, watching other girls go through exactly the same while seeing the male musicians seemingly band together and not subject any of their own to the same kind of humiliation.
I guess what I’m saying is that so much of this would be so much better if there were more female musicians to join me, but I can understand exactly why so many girls have walked away from the same path. And in the end, all of these issues stem from the cultural conditioning we have since birth, this weird separation between 2 groups that have specific roles to act out forced upon them, regardless of their natural personality. It doesn’t need to be there at all, and hurts everyone involved.
As a 4ft9 awkward creative introvert with a personality as soft as putty and meek as a mouse, I guess I was always going to struggle. But there’s an air of exclusivity and masculine harshness about the music scene that can make things so much harder for those with more feminine personalities.
What’s interesting is that anytime I’ve brought this up with a male musician I’ve been immediately interrupted (I get interrupted a lot anyway) and the conversation get turned back onto them, straight away it turns into a competition, and absolutely no progress is made in terms of understanding one another.
I’ve known so many incredible female musicians who have ended up getting demoralised and walking away from the scene completely. And I would absolutely say I feel like my journey has been more of an uphill struggle because of my gender. But, I suppose, at least it is just a bit of an uphill struggle instead of an impassable brick wall. An opportunity to get stronger as a person, I suppose. And in later years, I’ve found the slope to be a little easier than it was when I started, or maybe I’ve just gotten stronger from the climb, less likely to take anyone else’s shit. Would I recommend being a female guitarist? Absolutely, but only for selfish reasons, so I have someone to join me when I finally reach the top.
Bethany Munroe has been a guitarist, songwriter and gigging musician for 10 years, and has been working in the industry for 5 years. Signed to WMTH Records, she will be releasing a new EP and touring the UK again this year.