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Women on the Road

With female representation in crews steadily increasing, IQ speaks to some of the pioneers who have paved the way for the next generation

By Lisa Henderson on 08 Mar 2024

Powered by women: Coldplay's Music of the Spheres tour

Powered by women: Coldplay's Music of the Spheres tour

image © Anna Lee Media

If you want to get a sense of representation on the road, award nominations are one place to look. As many of the interviewees for this feature excitedly pointed out, women dominate certain categories on the shortlist for this year’s TPI Awards. For the Tour Manager of the Year Award, five out of six nominees are women.

“That’s pretty huge,” says nominee Rebecca Travis, who has been tour manager for artists including James Blake, Gorillaz, Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine, and Arcade Fire.“I’ve been getting nominated for that kind of award quite a few times, and it’s generally one or two women in that category,” she adds.

Marguerite Nguyen, longtime tour manager for Coldplay, and another one of the five female nominees, says the tour manager shortlist reflects a growing trend. “Tour managers are increasingly female,” she tells IQ from her home in Chicago. “I think women are better at this role, just like I think men are better at other roles on the road. My theory is that women are better multitaskers than men. Plus, there’s probably a little bit of motherly care to how we operate.”

Travis attests: “I do believe that women have perhaps a more caring, nurturing, motherly sort of way with them, and they might be more thoughtful about things like eating and health and mental wellbeing.”

While female representation among tour managers is strong, unfortunately, it’s not reflective of gender balance in the wider production industry – especially when it comes to technical departments.

“It’s always been the ‘merch girl’ or the ‘sound guy'”

“The highest representation I’ve seen is ten women on a crew of 50 people,” says Laura Nagtegaal, a guitar technician and tour manager who has been working in the industry for 30 years. “And when it comes to the backline, I’m a unicorn.”

Travis, whose industry career has spanned 25 years, has also noticed a gender divide when it comes to different touring disciplines: “Wardrobe, catering, management, assistant roles, are female-dominated, and accountants, and tour managers are well-represernted, but I struggle to think of many female production managers.”

On the other side of the production industry is Ginger Owl, a female-led company dealing in event management, accreditation, logistics, and advancing. “We advance lots of festivals and still, primarily, our main contacts are men – especially the technical and production roles,” says Julie Chennells. “You can count on one hand the ladies you see in the lighting industry, for example. We tend to see them more in logistics and sectors like in accreditation.

“I wouldn’t like to comment whether it’s society pushing women that way or if it’s because they don’t have the opportunities or if it’s indeed because they’re just not that interested in that side. It’s a very difficult question and debate. But if you look at the touring industry, it’s a microcosm of the world.”

Nagtegaal points out, gender inequality across roles has long been ingrained in ways we might not even realise: “It’s always been the ‘merch girl’ or the ‘sound guy.’”

“There are more women than I had ever witnessed on any other tour”

In a league of their own
It may not come as a surprise that one of the acts setting the bar for diversity among touring crews is Coldplay, a band that has been industry-leading in more ways than one.

Marguerite Nguyen started touring with the British icons in 2008 on the Viva La Vida tour as the production coordinator, before getting promoted to tour manager for Mylo Xyloto.

“I remember one day, we were walking the band offstage, and I saw a sea of women surrounding the band as they were walking back to the dressing room,” she recalls of her early days with the band. “There are more women than I had ever witnessed on any other tour – and it’s by no means a requirement of employment,” she says.

Coldplay’s team comprises more than 40 women and, what’s more notable than that, is the roles they take up on the crew: from head carpenter to Chris Martin’s personal security officer.

Travis, who was recently drafted into the Coldplay crew by Nguyen, says Coldplay are peerless when it comes to the gender balance of crew. “There are women everywhere on that team,” she says. “The technical departments are really well represented but that’s because the band make a real conscious effort to do that. They have programmes and apprenticeships, and it’s great because the band is huge, and they have the budget. But I think genuinely it just stems from the fact that the band wants to work with women.”

“There are women everywhere on [the Coldplay] team”

But as Travis knows from previous experiences, some artists are willing to hire more women in their crew but are not able to do so for a range of reasons, including the shortage of staff post-Covid.

“If you were only recruiting two or three new crew, ideally you would like to be diverse but really you’re just trying to get the very best people,” says Travis. “And actually, after Covid, sometimes you’re sometimes just trying to get people [full stop].”

Like any industry, hiring practices are crucial to end up with a diverse workforce. So who are the people in charge of staffing a tour?

“Tours are mostly staffed when you come onto them,” explains Travis. “If you’ve got a tour manager and a production manager and you’ve been touring a while, they’ll have people they’ve been working with for years.”

Although Nguyen hired Travis, she tells IQ that she rarely has a hand in recruitment, but when she does, “I try to choose the person who has the best skill set for that position.”

Travis, if in the position to staff a tour, would also hire based on merit: “There is definitely a sisterhood, but I wouldn’t hire a woman over a man unless they were as or better qualified.”

“We probably attract women because we are female directors”

Ginger Owl’s Julie Chennells and Nancy Skipper are two women who are in the position to hire and, incidentally, have a female-dominated team. “The management team is all female. We’ve got ten full-time staff and only three of them are male. This is not through choice but through choosing the people who are right to do the job,” says Skipper.

However, she admits that being a female-led company is a draw for female candidates hoping to work in the industry –underlining the importance of visibility and representation.

“We probably attract women because we are female directors. Quite often we read that in emails – that’s something that’s drawn them to apply.”

But if, as these women say, hiring in the industry is a meritocracy, it begs the question why women aren’t represented across the board. Is it because they’re underqualified or is it because they’re not applying for certain positions in the first place – perhaps because they can’t see other women in certain positions?

“The music industry is the only industry that hasn’t been affected by the MeToo movement”

An unfair fight
The thing with meritocracy is that it only works if the playing field is even to start with and, as these women tell IQ, sexism and misogyny are alive and well in the industry. “I don’t know any woman that hasn’t encountered sexism and misogyny. No matter how big or how small or how innocent or how extreme,” says Nguyen.

“The music industry is the only industry that hasn’t been affected by the MeToo movement,” she adds. A recent survey by Women In Live Music (WILM) found that 41% feel that they don’t belong to the music industry because they are women. Respondents comprised 187 women from 26 different countries.

Laura Nagtegaal, who is a transgender woman, has a unique perspective on sexism in the industry, having presented as a man for the first chunk of her career before transitioning. “[Before transitioning] I would typically work ten to 20 events a month, and it doesn’t happen anymore,” she says. “If I ever had a situation where I reached the end of my money before the end of the month, all I would need to do is ask anyone in the industry and before I could even finish the sentence, I would have multiple job offers.”

“It makes me think what if I [was never] good but because I presented as a bloke, I was just one of the guys, and guys can’t fail to [get to] the top.”

“It’s common knowledge in every industry that women always get paid less than men”

Even the women that do manage to progress through the industry’s meritocracy are still not getting the same rewards or recognition as their male counterparts.

“It’s common knowledge in every industry that women always get paid less than men,” says Nguyen.“It’s a very touchy subject with women, but I think that we should not be scared to talk about salaries and money. We should be asking each other ‘Hey, what did you get on this tour? Or ‘What should I ask for?’ Or ‘I really think I deserve a raise.’ I definitely don’t think men are having those kinds of conversations.”

Nobody puts baby in a corner
Another possible reason for the lack of female representation within touring crews, especially in some of the leading positions, is the difficulty of having children and maintaining a career on the road.

WILM, a European platform and online community for women in live music with more than 7,000 users, has long been investigating the impact – perceived and proven – of motherhood on women’s careers.

“We noticed over the years that women on-stage and offstage would hide their pregnancy if they were expecting, out of fear of losing jobs,” says WILM co-founder Malle Kaas.

“I think most people give up the industry if they have kids”

“We heard many women saying they would postpone having children as they couldn’t see themselves having kids and keep working in the live music industry.”

Nguyen can testify to this: “I have always wanted to have children. When I was 36, I froze my eggs as an insurance policy for my future because I just didn’t know what was going to happen.

“If I choose to have a baby, I can’t do my job. It’s just a fact, and it sucks. And I know that I’m not done doing what I’m doing. I know women who are on the road who have children, and it’s super difficult. I think women instinctively have a guilt of being away.”

“I wish there was a better system for all women in every spectrum of the world and their careers. For women on the road, particularly, it is more difficult.”

Travis says this is true for women in the tour manager roles because of the nature of the job. “Sometimes people ask me if I’ve got kids and I say, ‘When would that have happened? Where are they when I’m out here?’” she laughs. “A tour management job is all-encompassing. If you were a monitor engineer or a lighting operator, and you had a partner with a job that would allow them to look after the child, you could go away for a week or two, but as a tour manager, there’s no way you could do that. I think most people give up the industry if they have kids.”

“I felt like I couldn’t be seen to be incapable because I was pregnant otherwise, people would stop giving me work”

Chennells, who has children of her own, adds: “I do think it’s another reason that [this industry] could be more off-putting to someone.”

The Ginger Owl boss remembers the pressure she felt to plough on with her work both before and after she gave birth, due to a lack of infrastructure for pregnant women – especially those that are freelance.

“I worked as a promoter rep until I was around eight months pregnant,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t be seen to be incapable because I was pregnant otherwise, people would stop giving me work. You feel like you have to plough on to not be out of the circuit.”

Chennells returned to her first event when her daughter was two and a half months old: “I’d still been breastfeeding her and stuff, and I remember having to express in a PolyJohn [toilet] because there was just no other way. That’s just how it was, there are no provisions for stuff like that.”

By the same token
In other industries, those in charge of hiring have deployed positive discrimination when it comes to hiring, as a means to diversify the workforce, but the live music industry has mixed opinions.

“There are positive and negative sides to [positive discrimination],” says Laura Nagtegaal. “For instance, one band likes to book me because I’m Polish.”

But as she points out, there’s a difference between positive discrimination and tokenism. “One band, as I found out later, received an extra subsidy from the government for hiring a transgender person,” she says. “So that felt so much worse than tokenism, that felt like being used. Tokenism makes you second guess yourself – it creates imposter syndrome.”

“People see me on stage and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I can do this, too.'”

Imposter syndrome seems to be prevalent among women in the industry – possibly for that reason. In the aforementioned WILM survey, 44% of respondents said that, in general, they feel less confident than their male colleagues.

But Nagtegaal points out that despite the intention when it comes to hiring women, the result is often positive. “By hiring me, the numbers actually go up, there’s more representation,” she says. “People see me on stage and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I can do this, too.’ People literally come up to me after the show and say, ‘I didn’t know women could do this.’”

Travis says that being part of a minority has proved to be an advantage when it comes to getting hired for a job: “There’s less of you, therefore you stand out more.”

On the flip side, Chennells argues: “I do think it can be quite intimidating still to go into a very male-orientated sector like the audio or the lighting crew.”

Levelling the playing field
When WILM launched seven years ago to increase the representation of women backstage, the co-founders hoped it wouldn’t be needed for more than six months.

“We were so wrong!” says Kaas. “The need for WILM gets bigger every year, and we are looking at six to seven more years of work as we try to keep up with the huge demand for our community.”

“I just want women to have the same opportunities as men”

In an industry that continues to be dominated by men, there are many improvements to be made for women – from equal pay to better support for mothers – but the women are keen to point out that there are some fundamental issues that needs to be addressed first.

“One thing is to introduce and recruit women to the industry, another thing is to retain them,” says Kaas. “It takes about three to five years of training to get a competent person who can do the gig. But the majority of women dropout of the industry after three to four years for whatever reason. If we don’t find solutions to retain the women in the industry, we’ll keep on losing them and not really getting anywhere.”

Put simply by Nguyen: “I just want women to have the same opportunities as men. It would be nice to have an even playing field for everybody, no matter how you identify.”


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