Apparently the Grammys Want to “Attack Gender Bias Head On”

Grammys boss Neil Portnow has gone from saying women should "step up" in music to announcing a task force on gender inequality in the span of a week.
February 2, 2018, 12:43pm
SZA photo via Flickr; Grammys and Lorde photos via Wikimedia Commons

On paper, it sounded bleak. “The voices of women are missing from popular music,” said Professor Stacy L Smith, introducing a damning report on gender inequality in music that dropped three days before this year’s Grammys. “This is another example of what we see across the ecosystem of entertainment: Women are pushed to the margins or excluded from the creative process.” The numbers in the report were unforgiving: 12.3 percent of the songwriter’s responsible for some of the most popular songs between 2012 and 2017 (granted, just in the US) were women; less than 10 percent of all Grammy nominees in those years were women.


So, by the time this year’s ceremony rolled around on Sunday, January 28, viewers could have easily expected the Grammys to go beyond conjecture when addressing gender. After all, anyone with an internet connection or working television would have watched the recent reckoning on the mistreatment, harassment and abuse of women unfold last year, dredged up by the Harvey Weinstein revelations and ensuing rejuvenation of activist Tarana Burke’s “me too” movement. But the ceremony that seemed to shut out women, hardly rewarding black women in particular. It made cursory nods to symbols of women’s struggles (using Kesha's trauma as an anchor) rather than rewarding their creativity. So far, so Grammys.

The real kicker came after the telecast, when Grammys president Neil Portnow clumsily told those in the press room that women should “step up” if they “have the creativity in their hearts and souls” and want to be engineers, producers and musicians. Now, turns out Neil’s not only had to backtrack on that comment, but has now announced plans to do something practical about it. An independent task force is due to look into how the Recording Academy handles implicit gender bias and may be (inadvertently?) making it harder for women to scale the same heights in the industry as men. His letter, released as a press release according to Variety, reads:

“To The Music Community…

“After hearing from many friends and colleagues, I understand the hurt that my poor choice of words following last Sunday’s Grammy telecast has caused. I also now realize that it’s about more than just my words. Because those words, while not reflective of my beliefs, echo the real experience of too many women. I’d like to help make that right.

“The Recording Academy is establishing an independent task force to review every aspect of what we do as an organization and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community. We will also place ourselves under a microscope and tackle whatever truths are revealed.

“I appreciate that the issue of gender bias needs to be addressed in our industry, and share in the urgency to attack it head on. We as an organization, and I as its leader, pledge our commitment to doing that. We will share more information about the steps we are taking in the coming weeks.

“Sincerely, Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy.”

It couldn’t have come any sooner. Minutes after Neil’s release went out, a group of women music business executives (though, none of them label execs, which isn’t a great sign) publicly demanded the Grammy boss’s resignation. Speaking to Variety, a representative of the group said that even with the news of Portnow's press release, their letter still stands—ie: nah that's cool, resign anyway my man. Now, all that remains to do is wait and see what this Recording Academy pledge amounts to. One thing's for sure: the women who signed that letter will be playing close attention—on paper, just as in badly-worded quotes, the current situation feels too dire to do otherwise.

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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.