The Grinding Wheel

A few weeks ago, I ran across this interview with an up-and-coming DJ who just happens to be a woman.

I’m pretty new to the dance music scene. I’ve been listening to it forever, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to the point where I recognize the names of prominent DJs and remixers (my current favorites are Solarstone and Super8 & Tab). I have never been one of those people who spends a lot of time investigating the personal lives and views of artists I like, although sometimes reality intrudes (I stopped following one artist on Twitter because he retweeted something depressingly sexist). I had always assumed, though, that the EDM scene in general was fairly inclusive. Dance music, historically, has been very gay-friendly, and often specifically gay-oriented.

And there are a LOT of women involved in dance music. The majority of the vocals in dance music are done by women, many of them astonishingly talented. Of course, hunting down their names is often a chore – some of them are credited in the track, others are not – but still, there is a lot of talent on display, and vocalists gain a following independent of the song’s composer. Overall, dance music is not a boy’s club.

But dance music production apparently is.

What struck me most about that interview was not how outrageous her treatment has been, but how familiar. Her story is the story of every woman who has been an early pioneer in a male-dominated field. The pattern seems to be the same: disbelieving, discrediting, ridiculing, separating, and finally – sometimes – accepting. This will happen, and someday nobody will blink at a female DJ, or write a special interview about her, or try to put her on a pink stage. All they’ll care about is the music.

It’s the backlash that fascinates me. On the one hand, I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of men wanting spaces that are just for men. I went to a single-sex college (although there were always men everywhere, even in the dorms). I don’t think I would have chosen the classes I chose without it, and I wouldn’t be in the profession I’m in now. On the other hand…every day is White Hetero Guy day. White Hetero Guys are the accepted norm in almost every part of our culture. It’s the deviation from that that’s remarked on, that’s marked as “other,” sometimes in ways made to seem positive (i.e. gay men are SO ARTISTIC! or women are SUCH NATURAL NURTURERS!), but still intended to separate and hold off.

As the saying goes, I have many White Hetero Guy friends. Most of them are quite thoughtful, wonderful people. These are not the men I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones who, for example, feel the need to react to Linnea Schossow’s interview by remarking on how pretty she is. She is pretty, but…really, guys? That’s all you’ve got to say?

Humans are tribal. We seek out those who are similar to us. I think it’s perfectly natural for White Hetero Guys to want and enjoy a White Hetero Guy space. But a profession, a skill, a type of creativity – these are not spaces. These are simply things people do. Just because they have been, for so long, nearly exclusive men’s clubs doesn’t mean we’re all going to sit back and let you keep them to yourselves. Girls like dance music too. Girls can make dance music too. And when I’m listening to a track, I’m not actually wondering about the gender, sex, or sexuality of the producer, any more than I’m wondering what they had for lunch. Good music is good music – and saying “You made this? Really??” because the producer’s sex surprises you is just…puzzling to me.

I’ve written before about software, and how I feel the industry is hurtling backwards as far as treatment of women is concerned. All the Sheryl Sandbergs in the world won’t make up for the fact that women are avoiding software in droves. It’s worse than it was when I started, nearly 30 years ago now. The reasons why are not always clear, but fundamentally? Programming has become a “sexy” profession, and the boys want to keep it to themselves. They want women as rewards, not as co-workers. And girls, who are so often trained to be “nice” and to “compromise” and to put others before themselves, choose other jobs.

In some ways, I think it was easier for me because 30 years ago the stereotypical geek was much more reality in the software world. Back then, sexism took the form of guys falling silent and staring at me in shock when I came into the room; once I demonstrated that I spoke their language, they ignored my sex entirely.

These days, nobody ever quite lets me forget that I’m a girl. In a meeting a few months ago, my boss’ boss used the word “shit” while he was talking. He stopped the meeting, turned to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and apologized. (Interestingly, it was my boss at the time – a man – who found foul language objectionable; but that would never have occurred to this guy.)

Did I say anything about this? No. Because he meant well. It’s what he was taught. And right there – I’m part of the problem. (At the very least, I should have said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t like to be touched in a professional setting.” But that would have made him feel worse, and we can’t have that, can we?)

In some ways, the cultural howling from the White Hetero Guys is a good sign. They’re feeling threatened, and although I’m not always sure what it is they’re worried about, it means that the scene is shifting. It means people are talking about it, instead of just rolling over. Despite interviews that show how little the world has changed, the world is changing. Maybe not fast enough to make me happy – but it’s happening.

I remember having dinner with my grandmother decades ago, shortly after I graduated from college. I was complaining about my job (I was working as a secretary at a venture capital company, an industry that made software look like an equal opportunity summit), and all the frustrating barriers I was running into simply because I was female. At some point in my self-absorbed rant I noticed that, although she was smiling at me, there were tears on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just that you have so many opportunities. It’s wonderful.”

Change never happens fast enough for those of us living it – but it happens.