Putting It To Rights: An Interview With Women’s Symposium Organizer

As mentioned in a previous post, Berklee Valencia was lucky enough to host the Women’s Empower Symposium- an all day event packed with speakers spanning various job fields, all in the name of empowering women. So I decided to sit down with Claïs Lemmens, an organizer of the event.

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Berklee Valencia: How did the event come together?

Claïs Lemmens: We were at one of the Lagos concerts, and [a fellow organizer] came up to me and said, “It’s so weird, we were looking at the list of speakers, and there’s one woman on it, and like 20 men. Isn’t that weird? Shouldn’t we do something about this?” So we all started talking, and a lot of people got involved. We were having fun, and the day after we started a Facebook chat. We started thinking, “let’s think about who we know in our own personal circles that we can ask to Skype in.” This was not going to be a whole symposium, it was just going to be Skype sessions. We didn’t really need money to do Skype sessions, we just needed people that were willing to Skype in, so we started to make a list, and it was actually [our advisor] who said, “Why don’t you just make this a whole day event? Or even two days? Like a conference?” So we started working thinking about that, and the ball really started rolling when we got the diversity grant from the school. “This is the money you can start with and then maybe do something with.” And we were like, “We’re not gonna spend $4,000 on Skype sessions, so now we have to do something.” So that’s when it got super, super serious. The Facebook conversation that we had in the beginning, we cut it down from the people who weren’t really being responsive, then we had a first meeting. At that first meeting, we’d already started giving each other roles and responsibilities. I really wanted to do operations because I love thinking of details, and how everything works, and where everyone has to be.

BV: Why did you believe an event like this would be important to put on? Why would it be beneficial for the Berklee community?

CL: Every industry is still very male dominated, especially if you look at the CEOs and other executives. We see that in class as well, and in the music industry. All the executives are, for the most part, middle-aged, white men. So why is this good for the community? Well, especially for our program, we’re 50/50 in gender. It’s different in the other programs where girls are outnumbered by men. For us, it’s really balanced, which makes it a little schizophrenic to see that in class we’re treated the same way, but if we want to look forward and see what the future might bring, and the industry as a whole, that’s not the case. It’s not going to be…I’m not going call it equality because there’re different layers in that. But the music industry is not at all what we see in our class, so we wanted to give a voice to that female side, to our female students; but actually for everyone, just to make sure that they know that there’s also women and try to break the stereotype. One of the panels was called, “Recreating the Narrative”, and that’s what we were trying to do. And step away from that middle-aged white man in executive positions.

BV: And do you think that worked?

CL: I think so. We were frightened that there wouldn’t be enough people. Afterwards, especially the students who got to go to the workshops and ask questions, they said, “I’ve never felt so inspired, and these women were amazing, and still so down to earth, and they still find a way to balance family and have their job.” Their reactions were very positive for us, and they’re the reason we’re going to want to do it again next year. For next year, we’re gonna try handing it over to someone else. Hopefully, the person who gets to be the fellow gets to take the lead role and take charge of that next year.

BV: How did you go about picking speakers?

CL: We started looking for people in our own personal networks. For example, Christine Krzyzanowski used to be [another organizer’s] former boss. Angie Martinez, [one of the other organizers] did an internship with her. We got a bunch of people just by connecting with Berklee Boston. They said, “We know people who are cool or would be good for this.” Judy Cantor-Navas was actually recommended by Berklee Boston, and they paid for her ticket. That’s why we tried to find them close to home because it would be easier logistically and easier to convince them. It all really started with the first one, which was Yvette Noel-Schure. And that was because [another organizer] went to school with her daughter and knew that she was the publicist of Beyonce, and just wrote her a Facebook message. That’s what started it eventually because Yvette said yes. We were like, “We have to get her. Whatever happens, even if we don’t have any money after her flight, we have to have her.” And that was great, because we could say, “We have Beyonce’s publicist,” and other speakers would actually take us seriously. If we just say, “we have a secretary of some festival in Narnia,” they’d be like, “Well…okay, sounds like a student event that won’t be very big.” When we sent other application forms to the other speakers, we put it in there. They’d be like, “Ooh, well, this is probably going to be a big thing”. Even though it was not a big thing yet at all. We were still struggling with the budget, we were not sure about flights, and they would change all the time, and we were looking for venues and we had nothing. But we had Yvette, and that’s what started it all.

BV: What was the best part of the event?

CL: We can use this success to convince the speakers for next year, that all the speakers from this year already had a chance to network. These ladies, at the one dinner we had at the end of the day, these ladies were all taking selfies the whole time and putting them on Instagram and saying, “Look I made a bunch of new friends that I’m gonna do business with now!” That was amazing to see. We thought we were going to bring them to Berklee, but we actually brought them to each other. And we didn’t expect that.

BV: Do you think the event had an impact on Berklee?

CL: They’re not going to change their faculty, they’re not going to say, “Let’s fire half our faculty just to hire more women.” And that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s not about gender, it’s about how capable you are. And all the professors at our school, they’re very capable of what they’re doing. But for guest speakers, I’m pretty sure when we started this event that Emilien was contacting speakers for next year. So I’m pretty sure it will have an impact, at least a little bit. I can only hope. It had a positive impact so far this year. Emilien said he didn’t even realize that there was only one woman, and now he does, so at least they’re aware of the problem.

BV: Do you think the Boston campus will be inspired to host similar events?

CL: There’s an event we modeled our symposium after, which was “Women in Tech”, at Berklee Boston, so they have their act together, they know about all this stuff. They think about everything, so this whole gender thing must’ve come up.

BV: Any advice to girls for not getting discouraged?

CL: Find a mentor, find a female mentor who has achieved a lot, someone that knows the business. We’ve been emailing with the ladies from the event, and job searches have been made, and connections have been made. I would say find a mentor because you can fall back on this example you have. If you feel discouraged, at least you have someone to look up to. Don’t hate on men, it’s a really fine line between this whole empowering women thing and blaming guys.

 

Berklee As A Frontrunner

Just two weekends ago, Berklee College of Music hosted the Women’s Empower Symposium at their campus in Valencia, Spain.

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With speakers from all over the spectrum, the event brought the likes of music journalists, producers, composers, PR agents, and everything in between. Featuring some of the top names in the business, the affair drew in sizable crowds for the various lectures, workshops, and presentations by women such as Beyonce’s PR agent.

This puts Berklee in a significant position in relation to other music schools across the globe. Though they’re certainly not the first to host an event like this, this particular event garnered enough attention to make it one of the more significant ones. Upon Googling “women in music symposium”, 7 of the 10 top hits on the first results page link to Berklee’s event.

What does this mean for Berklee, then? They’ve shown that they’re willing to put a foot forward when it comes to matters of diversity in their business- and their business is creating musicians ready to storm the industry, and what good is that if your female students lack equal encouragement? Of course, with a hefty handful of music schools within the US as well as elsewhere, there’s been a slimming disparity between the genders of students. Which is great news- more women are feeling more confident in their abilities and are, therefore, more willing to pursue their dreams in lieu of “more practical” options. Guys don’t have to be the only rock stars.

And so Berklee has set a precedent not only for other music schools but also for themselves. While other institutions will have to up their pace to keep in stride with them, Berklee will have to continue clearing boundaries and making an example of themselves. Perhaps this is contingent on the promise of more events like this in the future, perhaps it’s reliant on their emphasis on their female students. No matter- it’s a huge step in the right direction.

See, the reason an event like this is so monumental for Berklee is in its impact. Looking past the search engine results, there was a resounding physical response at the campus. Not only was turnout an indicator of the event’s success, but the coverage throughout the school it received proved that as well. There wasn’t a hallway you could walk down without passing a poster for the symposium. Professors altered class times to ensure students could attend the event. In maintaining the appearance that Berklee was really passionate about the event, it fostered the same passion in the students. Write this down, Juilliard.

Throughout the day, attendees could sit in on panel discussions regarding various topics in the music industry- particularly how the particular women speaking were involved. Or they could attend various workshops crafted for specific interests, such as music blogging or banishing stage fright. When it came down to it, there was something for everyone, and there was something at almost every hour throughout the event. Never a dull or free moment.

If you’re interested in seeing some of the event, you can watch clips from some of the panels here.

 

Music Festivals’ Leading Ladies

Happy Coachella! As the exemplary summer music festival and kickstarting the flower-crowned season, today marks the first of the dual-weekend fest. But there’s a problem- the number of female musicians playing.

Image courtesy of Karen Cox @ SheKnows.

Image courtesy of Karen Cox @ SheKnows.

A women’s lifestyle blog, SheKnows, took cue from a picture that had been floating around the internet featuring the Reading/Leeds lineup with all the male-only acts removed, and put together a whole post analyzing the more popular festivals in the same manner and allotting percentages of female acts present at each. The results were highly disturbing. See the full article here.

Coachella scored a whopping 13.5% composition of female acts. Yikes. The other fests didn’t fare much better- Lollapalooza scored 25%, Bonnaroo 23%, and Governer’s Ball coming out on top with 30%.

The problem is, this isn’t news. This has become commonplace in many music festivals throughout the nation, even the world. That’s not to say the acts who are chosen, be they predominantly male or not, aren’t deserving of a slot. No, the issue lies in ensuring these festivals are fostering the kind of inclusion and diversity the music community is so apt to promote.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Back in 1997 (hello two-year-old me), Sarah McLachlan- yes, the sad puppy commercial woman- along with the help of Dan Fraser and Terry McBridge, put together Lillith Fair, a musical festival just for solo female acts or predominantly female bands. And it went on from ’97 through 1999, with a hiatus before its revival in 2010. Unfortunately, the fest is now defunct, but it gained quite a following in its time, even earning a documentary.

And Lillith Fair stands as proof that not only is a music festival with heavier female presence possible, it’s also just as attractive as a typical festival. While an entirely female festival would be a stellar thing to bring back, I believe it would be enough to start with simply being more inclusive in pre-existing festivals. With more women earning bigger names in the music industry, from pop to indie rock, it wouldn’t be hard to scout out some more acts with two X chromosomes.

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And it doesn’t stop with the musicians. I joke, you joke, we all joke about the stereotypical music festival goer, particularly the crop-topped and sunkissed girls. But we’re narrowly missing the point- it’s a form of self-expression, an embracing of it at that. Sure, you’ll find your fair share of scantily clad women at almost any summer music festival- but you’ll find your fair share of guys running around shirtless, as well. It’s in the very definition of a summer music festival: outdoors, massive crowds, summer heat on top of all that. So while us ladies can’t necessarily rock with our tops off, a good, airy crop top or even bikini top is as close as we can get. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There is something wrong with shaming them for that, which is something that happens sadly all too often. But seeing more feminine faces in the crowd gives those girls a sense of support, whether they need it or not.

The crowds at Lillith Fair were predominantly female. You do the math. More female acts = more female attendees = more security in the fact that it’s okay to be a girl and like music, and moreover, to celebrate that as much as male musicians and festival goers do. Party on, girls.

Who Run The Industry?

Sadly, unequivocally, and unsurprisingly: men. Whether you’re scanning the Top 40 list, or searching for the names of the people in charge of your favorite record labels, you’re more than likely to read an overwhelming amount of male names. We have our lady diva pop stars, sure. And there are people like Michele Anthony and Julie Greenwald– but the thing is, women on top are few and far between in any industry. And these two aren’t even the head honchos- they’re assistants to them. “How progressive,” said Peggy Olson.

Billboard cultivated the Women In Music awards as well as a series of articles on their website in 2007 in order to shed some well-deserved light on the female musicians, executives, and everyone in between in the industry. You’d recognize Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and others who have won the award- but skimming their list of the 50 Most Powerful (Female) Executives from last year, after first being blindly impressed, you begin to realize something terrifying- you’ve never heard of any of these people.

Okay, perhaps you’re a little more well-versed in music industry businesspeople than I am and you do recognize them. But chances are, each name is equally unfamiliar and frankly disturbing in this right. But it’s easy to rattle off the names of Brian Eno, Quincy Jones, Mark Ronson, and so many others.

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That’s why organizations like Women In Music are so important. We need more females not only stepping up as musicians, but on the business side of things as well. Started in 1985, Women In Music is a collective of women in all fields of the music industry, working to make what they do seem more attractive and plausible. They host events such as workshops and panels to encourage girls to break into the industry, no matter how off-putting it can be.

Although, it’s worthwhile to note the growth we’ve seen in the past few years. With pop powerhouses like Beyonce and rap queens like Nicki Minaj promoting feminist ideals (more on that in another post) in their music, and heartwarming singer songwriters like Taylor Swift proving that girls can pick up a guitar and make a song just as catchy as any flannel-clad, horn-rimmed glasses wearing guy can, this past decade has certainly seen lots more girl power. Not that girl groups or female-fronted groups haven’t been present in the past- each decade has certainly been host to some talented ladies. It’s just that we seem to be on the cusp of an estrogen fueled revolution in the music industry, as well as the world. There’s recently been a noticeable influx of these female artists, and certainly more of them stepping up in business.

And we can’t lose momentum. Billboard took a step in the right direction with their awards, Women In Music is a beautifully empowering organization that only has room to grow and everything to gain, and there are emerging publications like She Shreds that showcase some talent that might not get picked up in Rolling Stone. More and more ladies are picking up the microphone, the guitar, the drum sticks, you name it. But we need more. We need to keep going until Queen Bey is satisfied, and the industry, and maybe some day the world, is run by girls.

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