In my 22 years of being a London-based freelance musician, I have worked with singers (men and women), orchestral musicians (men and women), jazz instrumentalists (all male), organists (male with one or two exceptions), conductors (all male apart from one concert in which I was conducted by the wonderful Marin Alsop) and composers (all male apart from the BAFTA-winning Jessica Curry.) I’ve been wondering about the gender disparity; if, a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, there is such an uneven ratio of men to women in my profession alone, what is it like in other professions?
There’s an excellent video on YouTube called Inspiring The Future: Redraw The Balance in which a primary school teacher asks her pupils (girls and boys) to draw a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. They set about drawing their pictures, colouring them in, giving them characteristics, names and so on. Without exception, every child draws only men. When they’ve completed the task, their teacher asks “would you like to meet these people?” and, following a resounding “yes!”, into the classroom walk a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. As they remove their helmets/masks the cameras close in on the children gasping, mouths gaped, eyes wide in astonishment as they come face to face with three women. It’s a brilliant way to show that education about equality must begin at primary school level (ideally before that) before the gender stereotypes set in. In order for girls to grow up believing that they can be whomever they want to be, they need female rôle models; however, in order for there to be rôle models, there need to be women represented fairly in all professions, especially those which are traditionally solely male or male-dominated, but how can that ever be if those women in turn didn’t have rôle models when they were growing up? We need to be educating our girls (and our boys) to know that being female should no longer prevent anyone from following their dreams. In our modern age where gender fluidity is slowly replacing the old binary perception, hopefully one day it won’t even cross our minds to discriminate according to gender. You want to be an astronaut? Here’s what you need to do. You want to start your own company? Show me your business plan. It’s the polar opposite of what I was told as a child, growing up in the 1970s, but at least I was able to go to school. There are still some countries in the world where girls don’t even have access to education.
It is this fact that prompted me to write Twenty-first-century Woman (that and Oprah Winfrey’s extraordinary call-to-arms speech at the Golden Globes last March) and, with it, raise awareness of women’s roles in the world as well as money for charities supporting girls’ education worldwide. When I wrote the lyrics to the song it was the chorus that came to me first. I wanted to list many of the ways in which women make a positive contribution to society, both professionally and personally. “We are doctors, politicians, we’re conductors, musicians; we are poets, we are writers, we are even firefighters” and so it went on until I realised I’d reached thirty-seven on my “we are” list. When we recorded the song at Abbey Road Studios last November, I invited a team which was 100% women: 14 sopranos and altos, 1 girl singer, 4 band members, a sound engineer, a producer and me conducting. Everyone gave their time for nothing in support of the project
and we made history by being the first ever all-female recording session at Abbey Road.
During that amazing day, I asked one of the assistant sound engineers, in her final year studying on the UK’s prestigious sound engineering degree course, the Tonmeister at Surrey University, what the average male/female ratio is on that course – she replied “This year, out of 24 people, there are 4 women” which the others agreed was actually better than in previous years. During the same discussion, it was pointed out that until recording artists and their management start specifically requesting female sound engineers and producers, studios won’t necessarily think to hire any. It’s an interesting thesis. I felt pleased that our engineering/production team members are now able to write on their CVs that they’ve recorded a track at the famous Abbey Road Studios.
Like the primary school pupils in the YouTube video, I wanted to meet the firefighter, the surgeon and all of the other inspirational women I’d written into the chorus of my song. Since recording the single, I’ve been busy tracking down and filming women from all walks of life to appear in the Twenty-first-century Woman music video. It’s been a fascinating and somewhat humbling experience.
Dr Rachel Evans, a colorectal surgeon at London’s University College Hospital, agreed to appear for “we are surgeons”. Having donned my raspberry scrubs [see pic], I was shown around the operating theatres and had the chance to ask Rachel what it was like being a female surgeon. Looking me straight in the eye she replied “you need titanium balls!” She told me that, in her experience, women in the medical profession tend to choose nursing or anaesthesiology over being a doctor or a surgeon. Interestingly, when I filmed Azra Jivraj for “we’re opticians” she said that her profession had a higher proportion of women than men.
Until this year, women’s rugby has been a part-time only career so when I met English Rugby union players Vickii Cornborough, Leanne Riley and Shaunagh Brown just before Christmas they told me about their other careers. Shaunagh Brown has been a hammer thrower at the Commonwealth Games, a boxer, a gas engineer, a commercial diver and……a firefighter – now, that’s a twenty-first-century woman for you! During our meeting, she picked me up and threw me onto her shoulders, quick to point out that it wasn’t a fireman’s lift but a firefighter’s lift. It’s clear that
our language habits need to change too. This month, due to new ruling, Shaunagh and her rugby colleagues have finally been able to fulfil their dreams by becoming full-time rugby players and I couldn’t be happier for them.
Some of the people I’ve met have been the first women in the UK to hold a particular position. In 2007, after 22 years in the British army, Moira Cameron became the first female Yeoman warder (AKA Beefeater) at the Tower of London. Sadly, she wasn’t permitted to wear her fabulous uniform when I filmed her for the music video so I urge you to google her – it’s awesome! Reverend Lucy Winkett was the first female priest to join the clergy of St Paul’s cathedral. Also a professional singer, she was happy to sing (rather than speak or mime) her line “we are preachers”. In May last year, the Right Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally was installed as the first female Bishop of London. We met on a cold weekday morning in January amidst the busy London rush-hour as she was on her way to work. In the same section of the song, we also have the inimitable Sister Cristina Scuccia winner of The Voice of Italy in 2014 singing “we are nuns”. She lives in Italy so I didn’t get to meet her in person but her video clip is a moment worth waiting for!
Meeting Rev Lucy Winkett and Bishop Sarah Mullally put me in mind of a line by the poet Wendy Cope (a recent castaway on Desert Island Discs) who, in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of women being ordained into the church of England, wrote:
‘Good Christian men and women, let us raise a joyful shout:
The C of E is treating us as equals. Just about.’
I’ve felt very privileged to have been invited into the homes of many of the women who appear in the music video. I have sat in Wendy Cope’s sitting room sharing memories of Oxford University and being school music teachers, chatted about mindfulness and mental health awareness to Ruby Wax in her writing room and sat with Dame Jenni Murray (#weare #cancersurvivors) at her kitchen table while her adorable, tiny dogs jumped around me. Ruby was unwell with Delhi-belly, having recently returned from a trip to India; before we filmed her, she slightly caught me off-guard by asking, “Should I go put some make-up on?” to which I replied, “Yes, I think that would be good.” While we waited for her to return all I could think was, “OMG, I just told Ruby Wax OBE to put on some make-up!”
I admit to having been ever-so-slightly intimidated by the prospect of meeting so many illustrious women with OBEs, CBEs, MBEs and DBEs after their names but they were all utterly delightful and very personable. Even the unsuspecting Joanna Lumley and Prue Leith, whom I accosted out of the blue at a Christmas party, willingly allowed me to film them for the video. Thank you, ladies. I am in awe of you all.
Help us to raise awareness of this project by joining the #weare campaign on social media by posting a picture of yourself with the hashtags #weare # ??? #twentyfirstcenturywomansong Keep it positive!
Twenty-first-century Woman will be released on all music platforms on International Women’s Day (March 8th). All money from downloads goes to charities supporting girls’ education globally.