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Gender balance out of sync in trad music


By Liza Mulholland


On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate women in folk and traditional music, and where better to start than with good news!

Across Scotland lots of women are doing incredible work in our genre but I want to mention one local lady, whose achievements and vision have been recognised in an international setting and deserve to be flagged up here.

Fiona Dalgetty, chief executive of Fèis Rois, was recently named 35th on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour 2018 Power List, an impressive roll-call of the 40 most influential women in music.

With Beyonce topping the list of those "demonstrating power in the industry, innovators and ground-breakers championing the work of other women or changing the industry from within – making it more equal, diverse and creative", it is no small achievement.

In the company of international stars, globally celebrated orchestral conductors, directors of major labels etc, Fiona, who heads her majority-female team in offices on Dingwall’s High Street, shows the kind of creative and innovative thinking that makes a profound difference to very many lives.

Fèis Rois delivers many diverse projects, including work with young people in care, the Youth Music Initiative in primary schools across the Highlands, instrumental tuition for adults and children, special commissions, ceilidh trails, prison projects, music festivals and lots more.

All offer tremendous learning and confidence-building opportunities, employment for freelance musicians like me, and help preserve and promote our culture. Hats off then, please, to Fiona and all the team and board at Fèis Rois!

You could count on one hand the number of women playing instruments

But where are we on the wider question of gender equality in trad and folk? Unfortunately, I must report that all is not rosy.

Recent university research by musician Catriona Hawksworth highlights many areas in need of improvement. In brief, she has found more men than women are performing at the highest professional level in Scottish folk music (as reflected in festival line-ups), women are more likely to work part-time and to earn considerably less than men, and that women have greater caring responsibilities, which in turn leads to difficulties around touring and dealing with the vagaries of self-employed income.

All too familiar. Some years ago, our all-female band, Dorec-a-belle, was knocked back for a third time from a showcasing festival. It wasn’t that we weren’t good enough or ready to showcase – we had all earned our chops over decades in music – but it appeared that if you weren’t boys with electric guitars, you stood no chance.

We risked all by bringing to the attention of the male organisers that of 165 performers in the festival, just four per cent were women (mostly female singers fronting bands). In short, you could count on one hand the number of women playing instruments. The baffled looks on their faces suggested this uncomfortable truth had not occurred to them; they accepted our application the following year.

That was not a folk event but recently I observed a similar situation at a big traditional showcase concert. The house band of eight musicians contained no – yes, that’s right, zero – women. Several singers, including three women, came on to do a few songs each, but this evening of overwhelmingly male musicianship, though enjoyable, left me bemused.

Scotland is bursting with astonishing female talent, so how is it they are overlooked in this way?

Catriona concludes that the first step to address inequality is for further detailed research, including funding stats. Meanwhile it’s encouraging to see new groups like The Bit Collective raise awareness and create discussion around gender issues in folk and trad music, and the Performing Rights Society leading with Keychange, an initiative to accelerate change and achieve 50:50 gender balance in festival line-ups by 2022.

And what of #metoo? Is the warm, fuzzy world of folk immune to the kind of sexual harassment we’ve seen in pop, media and film?

Sadly, not. I venture to suggest that many women in folk music know of, or have experienced, predatory sexual behaviour and abuse of power by men in positions of influence dangling gigs, TV/radio spots and career advancement.

It’s high time to shine a light on that too.

  • More info on The Bit Collective can be found on Facebook.


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