Lack of gender diversity at Junos a sign of bigger issues in Canadian music

Alysha Brilla wasn't surprised by the lack of female representation when this year's Juno Awards nominees were announced.

'I don't want to see women take over the industry. I want to see a balance'

In recent years, artists such as (from left) Alysha Brilla, Tegan and Sara Quin and Amy Millan have all raised awareness about the lack of female nominees at the Juno Awards. (Canadian Press and Getty Images)

Alysha Brilla wasn't surprised by the lack of female representation when this year's Juno Awards nominees were announced.

Years ago, the Waterloo, Ont.-based musician and producer decided to conduct an experiment. She carefully tabulated the gender diversity among Juno nominees and found there wasn't much at all, particularly in the technical categories, which were completely dominated by men.

After scrolling through this year's list of contenders she concluded little has changed.

"I don't want to see women take over the industry. I want to see a balance," says Brilla, a two-time Juno nominee for best adult contemporary album.

"[But] there's a lot of resistance," she adds, "mainly from folks who don't think there's a problem in the first place."

Brilla points to data that shows only four women have won the producer award in the 45 years that Junos have been handed out; the engineer prize has never gone to a woman.

Among this year's nominees selected by CARAS members in categories that aren't based on sales, the figures show a stark disparity.

Album categories including country, adult alternative, francophone, classical, contemporary Christian, rap, R&B/soul and reggae all only have one female nominee each. Both the engineer and producer of the year categories don't have a single female nominee.

'Why aren't things shifting?'

When Brilla raised the issue with Junos brass in the past the response she got shocked her.

Representatives said better diversity at the Junos would only happen if more women became members of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (CARAS).

"The woman on the phone said to me, 'We don't have a lot of female voters so if you could find us some, that would be great,"' Brilla remembers.

"So I went out and did the work. I solicited every woman I knew who was technically qualified — who works in the industry. I asked artist friends, asked production friends and brought back a couple to them."

She waited until the next year to see if her efforts made a difference in the list of Juno nominees. They didn't, she says.

"A lot of people in the industry would say that everything is fine. You work hard and get where you want to be," Brilla says.

"To some extent that's true ... but I'm a very rare example of a woman in the industry who has the platform to voice these feelings. Why aren't things shifting?"

A wider industry problem

In February, Tegan and Sara published an open letter drawing attention to this year's lack of female nominees and urged the industry to more actively consider women for technical jobs.

Allan Reid, president of CARAS and the Junos, phoned the sisters upon hearing their concerns. He encouraged them to become CARAS members and Junos voters.

Sara Quin says the conversation motivated her to write letters to about 250 women in the industry. She plans to urge them to pay the CARAS membership fee, vote and "get more involved."

It's an initiative that sounds familiar to other prominent musicians.

"I did exactly what Sara did — last year," says Amy Millan, a member of Broken Social Scene and Stars.

"I wrote [Sarah] Harmer, Sarah Slean and Jenn Grant and I wrote all these women and said, 'Are you a member of CARAS?' Most of them came back and they said, 'No, because what's the point?"'


Millan doesn't exactly blame the Junos, but she doesn't think it's helping matters either.

She believes the awards show is emblematic of a bigger problem plaguing Canada's music industry and that women aren't getting a fair shake.

"[The Junos] are the period at the end of the sentence," she says.

Last year, Millan drew attention to a lack of women among the 2016 Juno nominees with the Twitter hashtag #JunosSoMale, a nod to the #OscarsSoWhite movement. It was quickly embraced by other musicians including electro-pop singer Grimes, who is nominated this year for three Junos including alternative album.

"I did not expect it to garner nationwide attention," Millan says. "It opened a floodgate of questions for all of us."

Her move also pushed the Junos to respond, with the organization's president saying the Junos are only mirroring the broader music industry.

"We simply reflect what comes to us, what's submitted," Reid says.

Putting the blame on CARAS voters doesn't necessarily make sense either. Overall its membership is 42 per cent female, he notes.

Instead, the problem is reflected more clearly in who submits their work to the Junos, Reid argues.

Juno president and CEO Allan Reid, seen in Hamilton, Ont. in 2015, has said the problem is not with the awards show, but with the wider Canadian music industry. 'We simply reflect what comes to us, what's submitted.' (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

This year, only nine women put their names in for producer of the year among 118 contenders, he says. That's little changed from last year when women represented seven of 119 submissions, either solo or as part of a team.

Winners for the production category are voted on by active members of the Canadian music producer community who are also CARAS members.

Reid believes there are bigger questions surrounding why more women don't submit to the technical categories.

"Women aren't getting into these fields," he says.

"I don't have the answer to that question of, 'Why don't women want to sit inside the studio for 10 to 12 hours without a window?' Maybe, I don't know, some of them just don't want to do that."

Brilla scoffs at the sentiment that women aren't interested in technical work. She believes responsibility lies with the music industry, which she says does little to encourage young women to pursue fields traditionally reserved for men.

In high school, she enrolled in a recording studio co-op that left her feeling like the "weird one." When she looked around the industry for female production mentors, she found there were hardly any.

"Women aren't making money behind the scenes," she says. "They're often the ones simply fronting the whole operation."

A transitional period

Hill Kourkoutis, a Toronto-based producer, takes a more optimistic outlook on the industry.

While she used to frequently encounter people shocked to learn she worked behind a mixing console, she's finding that sentiment is slowly changing.

"I don't look the type to necessarily geek out over gear," concedes Kourkoutis. "That's probably been the hardest thing, being taken seriously."

There is that stigma to overcome, but that's been experienced in other industries... It's just a game of catch-up at this point.- Hill Kourkoutis, music producer

Over the past few years she says she's witnessed a spike in the number of young women interested in production and believes it signals a "transitional period" for the industry.

"There is that stigma to overcome, but that's been experienced in other industries," says Kourkoutis. "It's just a game of catch-up at this point."

Vancouver's Nimbus School of Recording is an example of where a push for gender diversity appears to be working.

Chief executive Mike Schroeder says they've reached out to high schools to encourage more girls to consider music production fields and within their organization have made gender diversity a priority.

Female enrolment hit 20 per cent among its 154 students last year, an increase from seven per cent in 2011, which is progress but shows there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"It takes time to bring gender parity to an industry," Schroeder says.

"I want to make sure that whatever we do is based on equality and not an artificial program."