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Women in Music Technology in Higher Education in the UK

In March 2000 I was privileged to attend the College Music Society’s first workshop on Women and Music Technology, held at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta/Decatur, Georgia, USA. 1[1. I should like to express here my gratitude to the people and organisations who made my attendance at the workshop possible: Sonic Arts Network for the opportunity, SAN and the College Music Society for arranging it, Agnes Scott College for their hospitality, and Phil Hallett (SAN), Dr Calvert Johnson and Dr Judith Coe (CMS Committee on Music, Women and Gender) for their support.]   I made two presentations at the workshop; this article is drawn from the first, given at the start of the conference, focusing on music education at university level in the UK.  I offer some simple statistics gleaned from looking at the position of music technology within music HE more generally, and the position of women within both.  A parallel look at the women in SAN provides a slightly different perspective.

For the past ten years I have been based in the Music Department of Lancaster University as the Coordinator of a UK Higher Education Funding Councils’ project called the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) Centre for Music, which worked nationally to support and inform music lecturers in the uses of new technology to enhance their teaching.  During that time, CTI Music kept in touch with almost every department teaching music at HE level, and so gained some overall perspective on the use of music technology more generally.  CTI came to an end in January 2000 and I am now an Associate Director of the successor project, the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Centre for the Performing Arts.

I came to the CTI from a job in Engineering education, where the fact that departments admitted only one or two women students a year seemed to lead logically to the state of affairs on the staff, where a woman lecturer was a rarity indeed.  It was with (naive?) surprise, then, that I discovered when I returned to Music and started visiting departments, that although something between 70% and 80% of undergraduates were women, there were still hardly any women lecturers to be found.  This situation has improved quite considerably (if only from ‘appalling’ to ‘dreadful’) over the ten years since then, and I am optimistically expecting that it will continue to do so. 

The use of technology has also increased over the past ten years, and almost all departments make use of the ‘standard’ computing aids of email, WWW, word processing and presentation software as well as basic music technology facilities in the form of notation software and MIDI keyboards.  Many make use of some form of computer-assisted aural training and CD-ROM applications for musicology.  Some teach studio or electroacoustic composition, which inevitably generates a much more intensive use of technology.  Several departments have a major commitment to the integration of technology in all years of their degree course and some have been at the forefront of government-funded projects to develop new computer-based applications for HE music education.

Some simple statistics

LTSN is establishing contact with every academic in its discipline area.  As this has given me access to information about so many Music Departments in the UK, I have been able to put together some numbers which may be of interest.  This exercise is not statistically rigorous by any means, and must be considered more as a ‘finger in the wind’ than as any sort of scientific survey, but the patterns which emerge seem to be consistent, and therefore merit consideration.

Numbers of departments; numbers of women

Across the UK as a whole there are just under 100 institutions which teach music as part of a degree course, though not necessarily as a major study or leading to a degree in music.  We have information from 83 institutions and, across these, women make up about 18% of the lecturing staff. 2[2. This figure may be slightly depressed as it was acquired from lists of departmental email addresses and comparison with those figures given to me directly by colleagues suggests that some additional (male) members of support staff may be included in email lists.] [Throughout this discussion I shall omit numbers relating to instrumental tuition as, in the UK, instrumental teachers are usually contracted in and rarely accorded full academic status.] 

Looking only at the pre-1992 universities with long research histories, and thereby omitting generally less research-oriented institutions such as colleges of education, the number of women lecturers drops to around 16%.  These are, of course, average figures: some institutions have a very fair representation of women, some quite large departments have no women on the staff at all.

Technology in music; numbers of women

About one third (28 departments) are known either to teach music technology – or studio or electroacoustic composition – as a substantial element of their undergraduate course, or to offer postgraduate courses in those fields, or have a stated commitment to technology at undergraduate level.  Across these, women seem to make up about 18.5% of the staff.  This raises doubts over the accepted wisdom that it is technology which is primarily a male domain, rather than, say, composition, musicology, research, or holding an academic position. 

I note that SAN’s excellent Equal Opportunities Policy contains the following paragraph:

The Sonic Arts Network applauds the aims of organisations dedicated to encouraging the activity of women in all areas of music making.  We recognise that, as traditionally technology has been a male domain, so the area of music making with technology has been, and is, particularly dominated by men.  We seek to challenge this imbalance through an active openness to, and encouragement of, women music makers breaking into this field.
I would encourage SAN to consider that it may not be the technology that is the problem.

Breaking down the detail of women working in music technology, no clear pattern emerges, either in staff or student numbers.  My figures are incomplete, and in any case the numbers are too small for trends to emerge: the character of individual departments plays a much larger role at this level.  I can mention a few departments where women have a major teaching role within the technology area:

At Goldsmiths College, University of London, as at the London College of Printing, School of Media, the studio composition courses were, until very recently, entirely the responsibility of one woman.  Huddersfield University has two women teaching on the technology courses, and at Kingston, four (of the total of ten) tutors in music technology are women.  Glasgow teaches music technology specifically, in addition to integrating aspects of music technology into other courses such as composition, popular music, notation, etc.  Here, two permanent members of staff, one male, one female, are responsible for the music technology courses; the total teaching staff (permanent members plus contract staff) in music technology courses is five, three male and two female. 

But in many institutions, both technology and, perhaps more importantly, composition are entirely male-taught.


Looking at students, numbers vary equally widely.  Overall in the UK, 70%-80% of undergraduates reading music are female.  In those departments where technology is compulsory the women seem to do well at it but, on courses where it is optional, women often opt out, particularly from studio and composition work.  Why this might be has not been explored, as far as I know, but one factor which probably merits further investigation is whether women members of staff might, consciously or not, be acting as role models.

Colleagues (all men, as it happens) in a few departments responded in interesting detail to my enquiries about numbers. 

At Leeds, where music technology is a compulsory part of first-year study for single honours students, and an option at later stages of the course, just under 50% of students in the technology options at all levels are women.  My correspondent stated that he has never been aware of a gender divide in terms of ability with, or enthusiasm for, technology amongst students at Leeds.  Those Leeds composers and technologists with whom he has discussed it, have not stated gender as an issue or motivation, citing culture, language, experience and personality as the fundamentals.  In the recent past, of those women who chose to specialise in technology-based composition at postgraduate level, more were from overseas than from the UK. 

A colleague who taught for a while at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama was adamant that amongst his good composition students the gender ratio, and the ratio of those making use of technology, were both 50%.  In stark contrast, my correspondent teaching on the Electronic Music course at Keele has taught only one woman student compared to about 30 men.

Representation at postgraduate level is equally varied.  There are a small number of universities in the UK with long-standing international reputations for electroacoustic composition.  One of these seems to have difficulty in maintaining interest amongst its women students.  Another has an outstanding record of recruiting and retaining women; might this be influenced by the fact that it has four women (including a composer, though not of electroacoustic music) on its staff of nine?

Women in Sonic Arts Network

I turn now to the women in SAN and to more simple statistics.  SAN has around 300 members: of these, women form about 20%.  Growing as it did from EMAS (the Electroacoustic Music Association of Great Britain) with its inevitably institutional roots, I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers of SAN members in academia.  Of the women, about 26% are currently in university positions and of the men, about 32% are academics 3[3. Deduced partly from email addresses.]. It is interesting to speculate why a smaller (albeit only slightly smaller) percentage of women members are employed in universities.  It seems to me that there are three likely contributing factors: that they have found it hard to get academic positions (given the low numbers of women in academia); that they have had academic positions and have chosen to leave them (the exploitation of women in academic positions is not a topic for discussion here!); that they specialise in performance (the gender ratios in performance generally seem to be much more equal than in composition).  My personal feeling is that there are, indeed, a significant number of female performers in SAN, so I tend to favour this last factor (which also ties in with the slightly higher ratio of women in SAN than women in academia).

Given popular opinions on the way women work, and on ‘networking’ in general, I attempted one final analysis: to determine how many SAN members I knew – partly to examine the theory that women in minority situations form supportive networks.  The concept of ‘knowing’ is somewhat complex (how to categorise the people I know but who probably don’t know me?) so in the end I counted the SAN members whom I didn’t know.  It turns out that I don’t know 55% of SAN women and 55% of SAN men – which tells us nothing about networking beyond the fact that my own (rather limited?) relationships seem not to be gender-biased!

Returning to academia and the roles of women, I want to end by quoting a comment from a student who is pursuing an MA in Audio Production at Westminster University:

The few female teachers that I have encountered during my four years in music/technology education have been tremendous role models for me. I don’t think they were trying to be role models. It is often enough that they are there.

This article first appeared in the Sonic Art Network's DIFFUSION.

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