Gender Bias in the Arts

iStock_000002288504Small - Version 3It was Matt, bass player in my band ML3, who first turned me on to bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye. Excited about a recently seen documentary, he explained to me that Carol Kaye was one of the unsung session musicians at the center of the assembly line that was the 1960’s LA music industry. Her discography is simply staggering—The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Sinatra, Streisand. As one of the famed “Wrecking Crew,” she played on an estimated 10,000 recording sessions in a prolific career spanning 55 years.

Think about this. Kaye wrote and played the signature bass lines on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” She recorded the themes to Hawaii Five-O, MASH, and Mission: Impossible. She was a favorite of both Phil Spector and Mel Torme. And she is also an influential teacher and author, having published the quintessential book series on how to play the electric bass.

A number of articles, videos, and blogs have come out in recent years giving her the credit rightly due her, as well as to the entire Wrecking Crew. And rightly so. Not only was she a fundamental shaper of the iconic sound of those decades, but she was a female commanding the respect of her peers in a male-dominated, highly-charged industry.

Which got me thinking. Thankfully, we no longer have to work through the cultural barriers of gender discrimination, at least in music. So why is there still a glaring gender bias in the arts?

Think about someone who plays the trumpet. Chances are, you are picturing a male. Now think about a flutist. More than likely, it’s a female. Trombones, male. Harpists, female. Bassoonists, male. Oboists, female. Electric guitarists, always male. Acoustic guitarists, sometimes female. There’s an obvious and quite unspoken gender bias in music, and in this day and age, there is really no good reason why.

There has been some study on gender bias in music, and factors cited include both cultural associations of musical instruments to gender differences in learning and communication styles, and even to stereotyping of instruments by gender. But this gender bias isn’t limited to music. At a Christian writer’s conference I recently spoke at, the vast number of aspiring authors in attendance were women. In contrast, the Christian worship conferences I attend and speak at are predominantly attended by men. My young daughter’s dance academy was populated entirely by young females. Likewise, my son’s film school was almost entirely male. At a recent gathering of visual artists (painters, photographers, and graphic artists) in my church, I found myself to be the only man. Why is that?

As the modern church continues to appropriate secular musical styles and instruments, the church also seems to conveniently and unthinkingly adopt these same gender biases. Why do male worship leaders almost always play guitar, while most female worship leaders lead with just a mic? Why are worship bands populated predominantly by men? For that matter, why are most worship leaders men? And it goes deeper as well—To be quite blunt (and unintentionally stir a hornet’s nest), why do female worship leaders have to be pretty?

A half century ago, when Carol Kaye was quietly making history as an unknown female bassist, it would be natural to understand why females weren’t playing electric guitar or bass or drums. But in this present enlightened day of political correctness, gender bias still seems to be the unstated cultural canon.

Now it is certainly not wrong for a young girl to want to play the flute, nor for a young boy to have dreams of playing an electric guitar. Actually, it’s a great thing. But I believe it is certainly valid—and maybe even necessary—to challenge the social norms that make flute a feminine instrument and electric guitar a masculine one. As parents of young people, as leaders of creatives, as influencers of culture, as artists of faith, we need to open the possibilities of the arts to everyone. We need to cultivate options for young people, so that boys can feel free to take dance classes or play the harp, and girls can aspire to make films or play drums. As Carol Kaye stated simply, “The note doesn’t say it’s male or female, the note is either good or bad.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I invite you into this dialogue. What are your opinions and experiences? Is this something we should act on, or is it something we should simply accept as “the way it is”? Are you an exception to the norm? Where are your challenges and successes? Let me know.

 [Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Carol Kaye, I suggest this youtube video link. It’s like a masters class in studio musicianship. Enjoy!]

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5 thoughts on “Gender Bias in the Arts

  1. As the grandfather of 3 little girls, I wholeheartedly believe women should be able to pursue any and all occupations, hobbies and ministries. Electric guitar is often associated with louder, more aggressive sounds which might not appeal to some girls/women. But the option should be open. Our church band has only a female keyboard player, the other women are vocalists. I’m not aware of anything preventing women from playing the other instruments, other than what they’ve seen growing up. Should we apply affirmative action in the church? Ask guys to step down and women to step up into certain positions/instruments — I don’t think so.

  2. I used to be a worship leader, but as a mom I find it too hard. My kids get sick and instead of dragging them to Sunday school when they’re miserable, I stay home with them now, which makes me undependable for a regular job in the church like leading worship. I could ask my husband to stay home with them, but we were worship leaders together, and now we’re not. I could see him going back into it, and I would allow him to consistently be there but he is having different issues with the church now.

  3. As we begin to get a deeper revelation of who God is, we can begin to have the freedom to express those sounds and sights in various ways. At home, I encourage my kids to express in different ways regardless of their gender. They copy what they see. And sometimes it can be hard to find those examples. I, for one, am longing to see men enter into arts more than music, especially dance. This issue in the church is complicated by the majority of paid church leaders being men. But as we uncover the varied aspects of who we are as men and women, I think we will start to see progress in this area. Thanks for opening up the discussion!

    1. As a woman electric bass player I have actually enjoyed the reaction I get when our band performs. Usually it is women and girls of
      various ages that often just stop as they are walking by, make eye contact and smile and I know what they are saying. One reason that I was attracted to playing the instrument was because it is usually a guy’s thing. Anyway, I have had emai conversations with Carol Kaye and she is sooo encouraging. Thanks for the article.

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