Gender Imbalance and Music Technology

By Mason Bretan

About a month ago I was asked to write an article for the WMT newsletter regarding the very broad topic of gender imbalance in music technology. While it is not surprising that a gender imbalance exists given that such gender biases are present in most technological fields, the imbalance is more extreme in music tech and is particularly noticeable within GTCMT.

Having very little background within this area and a perspective that is grounded predominantly in personal empirical observations, I approached writing this article as if it were a research document. Thus, my first objective was to develop an understanding of why such an imbalance may exist based on published works encompassing a broad spectrum of material I thought to have relevance. This included accounts of varying historical and societal pressures, gender differences from a cognitive and neuroscience perspective, and various opinionated anecdotes regarding gender bias within science and technology as a whole.

My second objective is to propose an argument for why this imbalance has significance in our field of music technology beyond simply stating that it is better to have balanced numbers. I believe such an imbalance has detrimental effects on music and human artistic culture in general.

The digital age and tools such as ‘Sibelius’, ‘ProTools’, and ‘Ableton Live’ have undoubtedly had a large effect on the music making community. These applications have created opportunities for composers and performers and essentially democratized music by simplifying many tasks in the music making process. However, Victoria Armstrong argues that the benefits of such technology have not been an across the board win for each demographic [1].

Armstrong’s argument stems from Turkle’s suggestion that terms such as “computer” and “technology” are imbued with a culture that produces socialized expectations of specific gendered behaviors [6]. If this is true then even our program name “music technology” has an embedded bias. As a result, Armstrong argues that the digital technologies and compositional aids that have seemingly benefited the community are not neutral tools. Instead, a bias exists stemming from the traditional notion that technology is a male interest. Though as a society we are attempting to change this, there are challenges specific to music technology not present in other fields. Unlike traditional technical domains such as engineering and computer science, in which grade school teachers have the opportunity to encourage women to pursue and establish an interest early on in their education, such vocal support and encouragement does not exist for music technology. Individuals who study music technology are typically introduced to the field because of the circumstance of personal endeavors rather than an external influence or exposure.

Additional findings that have relevance to gender and music technology should also be noted. Henderson describes differences in musical preference between genders. For example, boys have a stronger preference for genres that typically employ more technology such as trance or grunge [4]. The integration of technology in music education has also been studied in children. Shibazaki found females typically had less confidence in working with technological tools for practice and composition and preferred working in groups [5]. Cooper found girls generally had less interest than boys when it came to incorporating technology with music [3].

Though these findings may stem from existing societal expectations another source of bias may come from the biological differences between men and women. Performance on spatial reasoning tasks, memory, and other cognitive tasks have shown to differ across gender boundaries [2]. Whether such differences translate to natural biases that would be reflected in music technology enrollment if all societal expectations were removed is debatable. However, the fact that differences exist is important. Different methods of understanding, visualizing, and thinking can have a profound influence on how an individual or group uses art as an outlet for expression.

Given such differences I believe it is inhibiting to the growth of art and culture for one gender to have a mainstream monopoly on a particular artform. One of the arguments for computer music composition is that we use computers to expand human musical culture by leveraging the things computers can do that humans cannot. We explore such non-human abilities through algorithmic composition or human computer interaction to discover and appreciate the resulting art. Likewise, it is to the benefit of music technology and more broadly the artistic culture to make every effort to minimize gender imbalance in order to maximize the breadth of ideas and artistic outcomes.

Gender imbalance is something that is not unique to music technology. In writing this article I also investigated promising solutions put forth by various universities and corporations to reduce the imbalance in domains related to technology such as computer science and engineering. By seeing the successes and failures of certain strategies we can make informed decisions in regards to developing methods that minimize gender imbalance at GTCMT. One institution that has been particularly successful at reducing gender balance within computer science is Harvey Mudd College. By rewarding faculty based on teaching performance instead of research, re-structuring class work to be group oriented, and switching introductory programming courses from Java to Python the college rewarded 55% of its CS degrees to women in 2016 (up from 15% in 2005). Results such as these are promising for GTCMT at which a miniscule 16% of the students are female.

References

[1] Armstrong, V. 2008. “Hard bargaining on the hard drive: gender bias in the music technology classroom.” Gender and Education Vol. 20, No. 4, July 2008, 375–386.

[2] Chrisler, J.C.; Donald R. McCreary. Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology. Springer, 2010.

[3] Cooper, L. 2009. “The Gender Factor: Teaching Composition in Music Technology Lessons to Boys and Girls in Year 9.” In Music Education with Digital Technology, edited by J.Finney and P.Burnard, 3040. London: Continuum.

[4] Henderson, C. 2000. “Music Technology and Gender.” Proceeding paper in ACEC Conference, Melbourne, Australia, July 2000.

[5] Shibazaki, K. and Marshall, N.A., 2013. Gender differences in computer-and instrumental-based musical composition. Educational Research, 55(4), pp.347-360.

[6] Turkle, S.. 1984. The second self: Computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc.

About the author: Mason bretan is Ph.D. student in Music Technology at Georgia Tech. He studies robotic musicianship and machine learning methods to generative music. Mason plans to graduate in Spring 2017 and hopes to continue his research in music, artificial intelligence, and robotics afterwards.

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