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Gender Bias in UK Music: What Instrument to Play?

New research by Encore Musicians has revealed ongoing sexist culture in the UK music industry, and clear gendered differences in instrument choice. 

Encore surveyed 333 of their musicians and asked if they felt certain instruments were dominated by one gender, if they ever felt discouraged from playing an instrument due to their gender, and where they felt the problem stemmed from. 

Some of their key findings revealed:

  • Women musicians (24%) are 4 times more likely to feel discouraged from playing certain instruments due to their gender than men (6%).

  • The guitar ranked as the most male-dominated instrument (34%) and the harp ranked as the most female-dominated instrument (40%). 
  • Sexist comments (27%), lack of women role models (21%), and gender stereotypes (13%) ranked as the top three reasons women musicians felt discouraged from playing certain instruments.
  • Overall, two-thirds (64%) of our musicians felt that some instruments were dominated by one gender but women were 36% more likely to agree with the statement.

The sexist comments ranged from comments such as “girls can’t shred as fast as guys” to one musician being told directly by a male band leader that they “weren’t having a female drummer”. Below are some more experiences from women musicians. 

  • (Flautist) - “Wanted to learn the accordion when I was younger - got told it would harm my 'development' (chest area)”
  • (Bagpiper) - “Comments I get rather a lot, “I wasn’t expecting you to be as good as that when I saw you’re a lady piper” “I was surprised to hear a lady piper play that well!“you’re actually better than the male pipers we saw in Scotland” Then there’s also the general comments on my size/frame/stamina, “where do you hide all that lung power” etc.”
  • (Director) - “As a female director of an ensemble I've experienced my fair share of gender bias and sexism…people asking if this is my "hobby" while my asking male colleagues how they got into this line of "work"

The second biggest reason for women feeling discouraged from certain instruments is the lack of women role models within certain instruments. Echoing the results above, women musicians felt they didn’t see a lot of drummers or guitarists who were women while growing up and feel this may have put them off from trying the instruments. 

  • (Singer) - “I wanted to learn drums as a teenager and was put off by the male-dominated environment of local drum classes”
  • (Flautist) - “I never thought to play bass or drums because I never saw any female role models”
  • (Harpist) - “Never seeing women represented on things like drums, bass, guitar etc as a child made me never consider I could try it”

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes play a huge role in affecting musicians' choice of musical instrument, with 13% of women and significantly, 80% of men agreeing that this was the most influential factor discouraging them from deciding what to play.

  • (Banjoist) - “Ukulele…was told it was for girls”.
  • (Saxophonist) - “As a boy it wasn’t cool to play woodwind, but times have changed.”
  • (Pianist) - “I thought the flute was for girls as a child.”

These results demonstrate that there is still a gender bias in the music industry when it comes to instrument choices, and we have work to do to ensure that the industry's culture is inclusive and diverse, that women role models are celebrated and valued, and that for children and young people especially, gender stereotypes do not limit choice or self-expression. 

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