Recording Academy President Neil Portnow walked back his comments that women in the music industry need to “step up” — but the suggestion has sparked a larger conversation about sexism, discrimination and award show representation.
“I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on the executive level to step up,” he said.
Jessica Sobhraj, president of the Women in Music organization, says Portnow failed to acknowledge the many hurdles women face trying to make it in the music industry.
“This issue certainly isn’t one of women needing to step up,” Sobhraj told the Daily News. “Clearly, women are stepping up. There are more pervasive issues encountered on a daily basis that women, in particular, have to face.”
Those issues, Sobhraj says, include discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, far fewer opportunities than men and blatant underrepresentation.
Neil Portnow has been the President of the Recording Academy since 2002.
(Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS)
That lack of female visibility is evident in a study released earlier this month by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg journalism school that found about 9% of all Grammy nominees between 2013 and 2018 are women.
This year’s Grammys were particularly male-dominated, as Lorde was the only female performer to receive a nomination for record or album of the year. Ed Sheeran, meanwhile, won pop song of the year despite being the only male performer in the category.
“The most obvious and glaring (problem) is you have men in a position of power who like the odds and games of the old boys’ club and don’t want to support and encourage women,” Sobhraj said. “That’s really at the heart of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement. It’s women collectively coming together and calling it out for what it is, which is just plain unfair and unjust.”
And the artists are far from the only women who are underrepresented. That same USC study found only 2% of producers are female.
Erin Bara, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, has worked the past five years to change that. She’s the creator of an organization called Beatz by Girls that’s devoted to teaching middle-school aged girls about audio production.
“We (as a society) perceive the women as being the artist and pretty much not playing any other role in the industry, or especially one that receives a Grammy award,” Bara told The News. “A lot of those behind-the-scenes roles go to men because they’re technical or they require some sort of leadership skill and women aren’t encouraged to play those roles. I think that comes into play at a very, very young age in our culture.
The Grammy Awards through the years
“We need more role models,” Bara said. “More representation.”
Portnow, who’s led the Recording Academy since 2002, made his “step up” comments when he was asked about the lack of female winners during a press conference backstage after the Grammys.
Pink, Charli XCX, Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea slammed the remark.
“Women in music don’t need to ‘Step Up,'” Pink wrote in a message shared to Twitter. “Women have been stepping since the beginning of time. Stepping up, and also stepping aside.”
Portnow released a statement published Tuesday by Variety, contending the phrase “step up” did not accurately convey his intended meaning.
“Our industry must recognize that women who dream of careers in music face barriers that men have never faced,” Portnow said in the statement. “We must actively work to eliminate these barriers and encourage women to live their dreams and express their passion and creativity through music. We must welcome, mentor, and empower them.”
Alessia Cara was the only woman to take home an award at Sunday’s main Grammys ceremony.
(Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS)
Sobhraj says she’d like to see the Recording Academy take a long look at the way it votes for awards in an effort to ensure more balanced winner pools moving forward.
But beyond the Grammys, she’d like to see the Recording Academy do more to promote visibility for women in the field.
“The Grammys (take) place on one night, but it’s an entire year of lead-up and events and marketing and content that’s being created around that,” she said. “I would love to see initiatives on their end to promote visibility that translates to the awards.”