Honoring Women In Music and Tech On International Women's Day

As today’s tech industry feels more like yesterday’s music industry, the real change will come from hard work. An open letter from Sonos CMO Joy Howard.


I’ll never forget the night I decided I was finished with the music industry. I’d spent the better part of the 90s in a band, singing and playing bass in clubs across the country. I also managed the business side of things, making sure we got paid and even brokering a record deal with a label.

By 1999, I’d lost count of all the venues we’d played and all the cocky sound guys who felt compelled to mansplain my amp to me during sound checks. And I was tired. Tired of being talked down to. Tired of fighting for the money I earned. Tired of trying to make my voice heard whenever I was on stage (thanks again, sound guy), as well as when I was off.

I finally reached my limit in God-knows-where, Florida. After the show, I was settling up with the promotor, as I always did. We’d played to a packed house, and I knew because I was counting heads during the show. I did the numbers, and the cash in front of me was short. Way short. When I pointed out his “mistake,” he put his hand on my lower back and said, “Sweetie, let me explain to you how this works…”

Furious, I didn’t hear a word he said after that. I could only hear the voice in my own head saying, “You’re too fucking smart for this.”

Facing the music industry.

It was not easy being a woman in the music industry back then,- probably because it simply wasn’t common to be one. The models of success we had mattered dearly: PJ Harvey, Carrie Brownstein, Bettina Richards, Kim Deal & Kim Gordon.  But there were too few who made it over the long haul, and sometimes it seemed you could only do it by being married to a band mate.  Even when you were married, you’d have to deal with your husband Thurston insensitively blabbing about your “moods” in the press.  Everything about the music ecosystem was male-dominated. During that entire time, I recall working with only one woman on the business side: a publicist.

Now, almost 20 years later, women’s experiences like mine in the music industry are still all too common. That’s not to minimize the recent and significant steps toward progress, but the industry is still made up of about 80% men. Just look at the Grammy Awards: In the last five years over 90% of the nominees have been male. That doesn’t reflect the diversity of my “Recently Played” tab.

Different field, same problems.

The first dot com boom lured me into business. When the tech industry was taking off and Fast Company magazine was launched, it was the first time I had heard of creativity being valued in business. Before the mid-90s, creativity was something that lived in an ad agency. But as a new culture took hold in the business world, there was a radical change in how people thought about work; We didn’t have to put on a suit and pretend we were somebody else. Suddenly, we could be ourselves.

But as leadership traded in its suit jacket for a hoodie, we somehow didn’t shed the phallocentrism of the old way of doing business. In some ways, the tech industry has become the music industry. Programmers and big shot CEOs even call themselves “rock stars.” And for all tech’s progressive veneer, there’s a lack of innovation when it comes to gender diversity and harassment.

Each week, you see another headline that pulls the curtain back just a bit more on the frat-like underbelly of Silicon Valley’s culture: “The Tech Industry’s Gender-Discrimination Problem”; “Sexism in Silicon Valley Is Holding Women Founders Back”; “Silicon Valley’s Bad Culture Starts with Venture Capitalists.”

The revelations out of the tech industry have already resulted in companies changing policies and powerful people losing their jobs. It’s tempting to think of these penalties as justice, but the real, systemic change takes time and a hell of a lot more work.

There’s a world beyond Silicon Valley. Who knew?

When I left the music industry, I thought I’d be leaving the bullshit—the chauvinism, the misogyny and harassment—behind. And I have. But scanning the headlines and listening to other women, it’s clear that tech industry at large has a long way to go. Of course, in every industry there’s a story of regressive and progressive forces. I’m lucky I get to be a part of the latter.

Sonos isn’t your stereotypical tech company, and I think one of the main reasons is because our founders made a very intentional decision to start the company outside of Silicon Valley—and stay there. The culture at Sonos has trickled down from the top, with our leaders working hard to be real allies for women.

That’s not to say Sonos is some utopia of gender parity. We live in the same world as you do. But our leaders don’t let the daily grind get in the way of addressing issues and taking steps– such as the Boom Boom Room we created at CES–to make the tech and music industries that we bridge more egalitarian.

The #PressforProgress.

Today Sonos is celebrating International Women’s Day, a day that honors women’s many cultural, economic, technological, political and social contributions to the world. In addition to company-wide efforts we’ve launched as part of our Listen Better initiative, we’re creating spaces to foster important conversations and a strong community for women.

At our flagship store in NYC, we’re joining forces with ARTICLE 19 in their #SpeakingUp initiative for a night of conversation around combating the online trolling so frequently aimed at women who advocate for gender parity. We’re partnering with shesaid.so and hosting a panel in London to celebrate women in the music industry and connect them through mentorship. In Benelux, we’re setting up a roundtable discussion on equality and diversity in music and the effort to achieve a 50/50 split between the sexes in Dutch music festivals by 2022. Look out for this on a new episode of the Sonos Deep Dive podcast.

And to truly get you into that smash-the-patriarchy mood, check out our International Women’s Day 2018 playlist, curated by the women of Sonos and highlighting some of the greatest female artists and producers.

Innovating for the future.

With the “Me Too” movement, it feels like we’re right on the cusp transformation. Everyone wants to feel that things are never going to be the same again. And, sure, some of the egregious manifestations of sexual harassment may go away as a result, but we need more substantive progress. More diverse role models. More female leaders. More good men joining in the fight.  More transparency. More practical tools for change.

It’s easy to get pissed off at salacious headlines, and it feels good to march.  By all means, let’s keep it up.  But real change is hard work, so let’s do it together and let’s make it last.

In solidarity,

Joy Howard

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