Language and the Gender Gap: The Power of Words – Soundfly

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Language and the Gender Gap: The Power of Words

By Michelle Sciarrotta

This article originally appeared on the SoundGirls Blog

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January 2021 has shone a light in several ways about just how far we still have to go in terms of the language and choice of words we use; not only in striving for professionalism and equity in the workplace but also because an insidious weaponizing of language contributes to a culture that is harmful to women.

Many in the music and audio community have been involved in a current debate about the company, Gearslutz following a petition that was launched requesting they change their name.

The petition on change.org was created by Cam Ran, who explained:

“This petition was created with the hopes of encouraging Gearslutz to change their name to something that more appropriately represents the gear community.

Gearslutz is widely regarded and refers to themselves as ‘The No.1 Website for Pro Audio.’ Every engineer I know has used/uses it, and most of the engineers I know feel uncomfortable with the name. I have been one of two women sitting in an engineering class and a professor has uncomfortably mentioned the website, apologizing for the name, but bringing it up because it has been an important resource to use when learning about gear.

While there has been much progress in the gear community and audio world for women, we still exist in a time where every woman I know who works in audio has been asked which band member she’s dating when she’s loading in gear. Every woman I know has been called a slut in a derogatory manner. Every woman I know who works in a male-dominated field has felt objectified and patronized. And not every woman is offended by this name, but enough people are that it’s a frequent and recurring topic.

It might not seem like a big deal, and people will likely say that we should focus our energies on bigger issues of equality, but we can do both. We can talk about the things in our community that make us uncomfortable, starting with this website created by men, who have never been called ‘slut’ in a hateful and derogatory way. Who have never had to prove their merit in their field simply because of their gender. Who have never had someone assume that their level of success was due to the fact that they slept with the right person.

Aside from making some people feel a bit upset, it’s also just a very unprofessional name that makes people uncomfortable in an educational environment or workplace, as you can see from the comments of signees below.

I’m looking forward to a brighter future where women and female-presenting people feel comfortable in all spheres of work and passion, and this small change would be a great step. If you’re angered or annoyed by this request, truly ask yourself why.”

Gearslutz co-founder Jules Standen has replied to the petition several times, initially saying in a now-deleted post:

“The word ‘slut’ isn’t necessarily just a derogatory word for women, it refers to someone driven by their lust more than by their brain – kinda like nerds who habitually spend money on a bunch of machines they don’t really need or are worthy of. The gear is no longer a tool but a self-purpose and is fetishized. ‘Slut’ is a good word to describe people who indulge in this behaviour.”

Standen then released a more detailed statement, saying:

“As the founder of Gearslutz, I chose the name as an ironic way of describing those who, like me, had no control over their desires for acquiring recording equipment. The name was and still is, not intended to send a derogatory message to women or to discourage them from participating in the forum. It was simply meant to poke fun at some people’s pro audio shopping habits.

I suppose it’s a question of not judging a book by its cover. If women who are put off by the name were to look at the forum itself, they would find it a very welcoming place. In fact, from the very outset, because male participants were in the majority, we have done our very best to make the forum a safe place for women in terms of the site content and visitor behaviour.

Regarding the name, I appreciate it’s not for everyone, but that is how we are known to our 1.6 million monthly visitors from 218 countries. For those uncomfortable with our logo, we have always offered an alternative option. This is available in a drop-down menu on the bottom left — it will display the alternate ‘Gearsz’ logo. We appreciate feedback about the forums and I reiterate that everyone is welcome to join in the discussions any time.”

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An unexpected development to the story.

Meg Lee Chin publicly commented on the petition and spoke out on social media. She posted her comment, outlining her previous role as the founding partner of Gearslutz with Standen back in 2000 and recounted her experience of waking up one day to discover she had been locked out of all the accounts relating to the site and the business.

Chin’s statement recalls how she won the ensuing court battle that followed but was hit hard by the lawyer fees involved in the case.

Gearslutz announces name change.

Shortly after Meg went public with her story, it was announced via Working Class Audio that Gearslutz would in fact be changing their name, and you can listen to Jules Standen’s conversation with WCA about his decision here.

The Gearslutz conversation has raised some ongoing issues, both specific to the music and audio industry, and in a wider context for women and girls in general. We know that young girls have been consistently dissuaded from pursuing STEM subjects, and many have pointed out that the casual use of a word so often weaponized against women is not helpful in encouraging the next generation of women in audio. One commenter noted:

“What we tolerate in language, symbols, and jokes all play a part in shaping this culture.”

They also acknowledged the effect on the young girls who see pervasive misogynistic language:

“Perhaps the same harmful language that kids at their school are using to shame and hurt them — and think ‘Hmm, yeah, maybe this industry isn’t for me.’”

The Everyday Sexism Project

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, a place for women and girls to share their accounts of harassment. In launching the project, Bates was shocked at how many accounts of sexist harassment were coming from mid-teen girls, and subsequently moved the majority of her work into a school setting.

While conducting classroom discussions had been a positive medium for conversation initially, Bates then found an unexpected resistance:

“I started hearing boys at school who already felt that they’d been poisoned against the idea of even having a conversation about feminism. And they were coming out with some quite extreme things: feminism is a cancer, all women lie about rape, white men are the real victims of society… But the moment it all really clicked for me was when they started repeating, at schools from rural Scotland to inner-city London, the same wrong statistics. That’s when I clocked what was going on.”

Bates found herself delving deep into the online communities that operate uncensored, radicalizing young boys across a vast network of websites and forums and described her experience with The Guardian in a 2020 interview. The most shocking takeaways from Bates’ findings were: the young age at which children were targeted (11+) and the traceable path that started with anti-feminist memes and jokes online, and then progressed to targeted acts of misogynistic violence against women and the adoption of neo-Nazi white supremacist beliefs.

Phil Spector dies.

At the same time, the Gearslutz petition was happening, news broke that music producer Phil Spector had died while serving a sentence for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Interestingly, the same conversations were occurring around the wording and reporting of his death from various news and media outlets.

Subsequent editing and deletion has occurred across several platforms due to something of a backlash, but the BBC had previously gone with the headline: “Talented but flawed Producer Phil Spector dies aged 81.” And Rolling Stone published: “Phil Spector, the famed ‘wall of sound’ producer and architect of some of pop music’s most enduring songs, whose legacy was marred by a murder conviction, has died.”

In the days that followed, a flurry of articles and conversations ensued around what is acceptable language when talking about men and the women they have harmed. Phil Spector’s ex-wife Ronnie has been consistently open about the abusive details of their marriage since she escaped from their marital home, barefoot, while he screamed death threats after her.

During their marriage, Ronnie had been coerced into abandoning her music career, adopting three children (notably, twins that Phil brought home as a surprise “Christmas present”), and was held prisoner in their house for years. It’s fairly well-known that Phil Spector claimed he had a gold coffin with a glass top that he threatened he would display Ronnie’s body in after killing her. Their divorce was rife with stalking, constant death threats, legal battles over their children, and the withholding of The Ronettes’ royalty payments.

Despite public knowledge of his reputation for having a tendency to pull a gun on women he was interested in and the artists he produced, Phil Spector continued to work up until the early 2000s. When Lana Clarkson was killed from a gunshot to the mouth in 2003, it took several trials and retrials until Spector was convicted of murder in the second degree in 2009 — he had remained free for the six years in between.

Phil Spector was undoubtedly a pioneer in the music world, but at what cost? Ronnie Spector’s tribute to the news of his death stated he was a “brilliant producer, but darkness set in and many lives were damaged.” During my college years, I learned about Spector’s techniques and infamous acts of violence, noting that his behaviour happened to be an accepted, secondary by-product of his genius.

Studying the “wall of sound” in a real-time parallel to Lana Clarkson’s murder, I soon realized that this was the structure of things, and where we are told that women fit into the industry and the world. How many generations of women from the 1960s through to today have grown up observing this narrative — that their collective lives are ultimately worth less than one man’s talent?

And now, fifty years after Ronnie Spector fled for her life, with Phil Spector 10+ years into his prison sentence for murder, we relentlessly keep positive language reserved for white men, no matter what they have done.

Words matter.

The selective choice of words when reporting on violent men is not exclusive to the music industry, nor to the rich and famous. Even the most mediocre men who kill and do harm are by default, written about in the media with an overly positive focus, while women are dehumanized.

Journalist and author Jane Gilmore is the creator of #FixedIt which is a collection of such headlines that she edits to more accurately report the facts of a story, without the bias that is so prevalent. Gilmore has also published a book titled FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media as well as hosting a TED X talk about these issues.

In her TED X talk, she demonstrates how unbelievably ingrained this attitude really is, showing examples whereby the mothers of men who have committed crimes are negatively reported on and held to account, while the stories omit any blame on their sons, the actual perpetrators.

It’s easy to see that in isolation, a “jokey” word might not sound like a huge deal at first glance. It’s also frequently debated whether character should play a role in our appreciation of art. However, when we stop for long enough to listen to the actual facts and figures about the implications and outcomes these issues have been proven to have, we need to do better. If we know that language influences our societal norms and contributes to a culture that is rife with sexual harassment for our women and girls, we need to consciously break the cycle.

If we are teaching 1960s music history and production in schools, colleges, and universities to young people around the world, maybe we shouldn’t laugh off and downplay violent “eccentricities,” but ensure that standards and structures are in place to prevent these working conditions from ever being the norm again. With the same conversations currently taking place across the industry, there is hope to be found in addressing the power our words can have — both for creating a more inclusive workplace, and a safer and more equitable world.

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Michelle Sciarrotta is a singer/songwriter, composer, and musician. She holds a BA in Music Performance and a music teaching degree. Michelle has worked all over the UK and Europe as a guitarist and co-writer with Blaze Bayley, and she self-produces her solo projects. She is passionate about women’s rights and education for girls.

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