Underrepresentation in the Electronic Music Minor

Striving to reduce the gender gap in music

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Sitting in a lecture for Advanced Electronic Sound Synthesis, electronic music minor students observe and discuss how computer coding can alter the pitch and rhythm of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” There are only two non-male students in this class of 18.

“The first day [of the minor] I walked in and there were three [women], second quarter four of us and now only two of us,” said fourth-year cognitive science major and electronic music minor Natalie Atkinson.

The electronic music minor is a rigorous and interdisciplinary study that blends computer science with musical creativity, attracting a range of majors from biology to computer science to film. The intensity of the minor only allows for 25 students per application cycle, but for the few selected, the program offers a range of opportunities to learn how to record, produce and compose music.

While the program’s teachings may be diverse, its student demographics are not. Around 12 percent of students in the minor are non-male. This reflects the professional demographic, in which only 9 percent of all electronic music is produced by women.

“It’s definitely very male-dominated and sometimes I will not speak up just because I feel almost like they’re overpowering sometimes,” Atkinson said.

Before applying to the minor, students must complete the lower-division History of Electronic Music class, taught by music doctoral student Madison Heying, and should understand music theory. The application process also encourages students to submit previous electronic music recordings or compositions.

Heying, the only female teacher affiliated with the minor, believes the application requirements restrict accessibility and overall applicant diversity.

“There’s also a class issue there too,” Heying said. “There’s a certain amount of wealth and economics that is sort of necessary to have a computer and have parents that can buy you lots of toys like a radio or a tape player or these things that have kind of been traditionally necessary to get started with [electronic music].”

The gender demographics of the students enrolled in the minor mirror those of the faculty and graduate students teaching the courses. There are three faculty and two graduate students teaching studio courses, all male and white.

“Young women probably enter the minor and they’re surrounded by young guys, including the teacher, and they don’t see themselves reflected anywhere,” Heying said.

Heying and fellow graduate student teacher David Kant both noticed these trends in their classes and in the professional electronic music field. For Kant, his approach to teaching studio courses involves providing students with the tools to feel confident working with technology in its relationship to art.

He tries to give his students creative role models to motivate them to take artistic and technological risks. However, the lack of published material by women and other underrepresented groups makes it difficult to find role models for all of his students.

“Me, as a white guy, all of the role models looked like me. It didn’t occur to me how significant that can be, just having a role model, being able to see yourself in this world,” Kant said.

Kant and Heying want to recruit more diverse students to the electronic music minor. This process starts during the application cycle.

“If the people doing the applications were more willing to meet students and more willing to take students with less experience or different kinds of experience, those would be good ways to get different kinds of students in the minor,” Heying said.

Heying hopes more non-male faculty and graduate students are selected to teach the studio courses in the minor, paving the way for more non-male student representation.

“[Music] studios quickly become a really [male-oriented] space. It’s just this ‘bro, look what I did’ culture,” Heying said. “I really hope the girls who get into the minor really stick with it and it’ll probably be a little bit tough, but it’s important that they’re there and […] know that at least [we] are really supporting them and rooting for them.”