According to a music researcher, discrimination of women is common in the club scene. Female DJs don’t get gigs because the music they play is “too feminine.”

It's no secret that elite clubs are fast-tracking customers that fit the "vibe" they are trying to create, but it isn't just the young, pretty ones. If the clothes are wrong, they will not get past the velvet rope, and that's discrimination, argues Tami Gadir, a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo, who is researching women’s experiences in the electronic music scene. She is studying female DJs in particular, but in her experience, the gender differences pervade the electronic club scene in its entirety.

She contends that the lack of gender parity among DJs is discrimination. In Norway there are assumptions that women don't know how to use the machines properly. There are also stereotypical ideas of women’s taste in music, and of what kind of music they produce and play, according to Gadir.

“There is this bizarre assumption that you can somehow predict what kind of music women will dance to. For example, it is assumed that women like music with vocals, or sounds that are ‘softer’ or in a higher register, better than the men on the dance floor do. Men, on the other hand, are presumed to like a more aggressive or hard sound, or deeper sounds. This connection between taste in music and gender is a very powerful myth that keeps being perpetuated.”

Gender discrimination along three dimensions

There are three dimensions she has investigated, after visiting clubs in Sydney, Edinburgh, Oslo, and dance clubs all over the world: the lack of female presence on the nightclub line-ups, women’s uncomfortable experiences at work or on the dance floor, and the gendered symbolic language used to assess music.

“What I saw as a visitor of dance clubs was that there were always fewer women than men DJing. But I was also made aware that both on the dance floor and as DJs, women experienced a sense of precarity. The clubs, the dance floors, and the night life scene make up an unsafe space, where women are being harassed, and even attacked.”

DJing takes place during the night, and the audience is often intoxicated. The DJ’s physical position in the club is protected to various degrees, and Gadir gives examples of women who have had to break their set due to harassment. One woman claimed said that she had enough when the audience gathered into a mob repeatedly shouting for her to undress. In the club scene Gadir has studied, the DJs play electronically produced music for a dancing audience. It can be techno, house, drum’n’bass or EDM, from Kygo and Avicii at large, mainstream clubs to The Black Madonna or Cassy in more niche clubs. Regardless of where you are in the world, you will find clubs playing this kind of music in the big cities.

According to Gadir, myths about gender and music make up a self-fulfilling prophecy. For when you think that a certain type of music will make women dance, and women in fact are the first to come to the dance floor, the male DJ is happy. He then continues to spread the idea that women have a different taste in music than men.

“But does this really mean that there is a connection between gender and music? Is there such a thing as a feminine sound? No, there isn't. But, as there are cultural understandings of femininity and masculinity, there are musical sounds interpreted and described as feminine.”

“In the interviews I´ve done with different actors in the scene they would speak about a particular vocabulary of sound used to describe electronic music. This could be a technical language, describing how the music is produced. On the other hand, they used language comparing the electronic music to other musical instruments, like strings or drums. But the most common is to call upon metaphors to describe music. And often these metaphors imply gender. People would say that girls like ‘fluffy’ sounds. Some even used the term ‘girly’, by which they often meant 'happy' or 'light' music that is easy to listen to. And surprisingly often, the term 'soulful vocal house' is mentioned, assuming that women like electronic music with soulful vocals.

“The reason why it is like this is that we share a common vocabulary of masculinity and femininity. That's just how it is. I understood perfectly well what they meant. When someone said 'fluffy' or 'girly', I instantly understood what sounds they referred to. Even though I don't buy into the stereotypes, our cultural references are full of gender symbols.”

Gadir also found that the gendered vocabulary said something about the quality of the music.

“The feminine was always the aspect that made the music less legitimate. It lowered the standard and made it more accessible. Accessible could be understood as something positive, but what they really meant was to dumb it down. So putting girly sounds in your music would be to dumb it down. ”

Gadir is particularly critical to the fact that the club scene has been described as exceptionally open and inclusive, and as a space for euphoric and transcendent experiences. At the clubs, dancing into the early hours is the goal for both DJs and the audience, but according to the researcher, the utopian experiences are rare and have received too much scholarly attention.

Female strategies when they encounter the dominant ideas about femininity

“Some distance themselves from traditional ideas of femininity. But the gender performances among the informants are very varied. Some are consciously rebellious, whereas others are hyper-feminizing themselves either as a statement or because they have to in order to get gigs. Whereas others dress down or even have a masculine style, and avoid playing music that is considered feminine. And then there are those who are queer, and for those, other 'rules' apply.

“One of my informants costumes almost in the same way as Lady Gaga. She is very aware of gender dynamics and the gender dimension in her performance, and she uses her success as a platform to say something political about gender discrimination. She shows a lot of skin and uses fashion actively. She fluctuates between feeling that it is empowering and feeling that it is exploitative, but she likes the theatrical aspect of it. Unfortunately, she deals with the worst types of comments and gender harassment by both men and women. It is a shame that there can't be a mutual support between women regardless of how they dress, but that some have to criticize women playing with a hyper-feminine appearance.”

Even the title DJ is masculine by default, according to Gadir. There is a stereotypical masculine man in the mainstream culture, and the male DJs are branded according to this image. As such, there isn’t much leeway for men either. Ideally, they should look like the type of man we know from Hollywood and popular culture. But there is a large queer scene, and there you’ll encounter many different gender representations.

“The numbers are important. The share of women must increase. Other strategies include making club policies non-discriminatory and providing consequences for those who misbehave in terms of gender discrimination or harassment."