<title>Mara Helmuth Music</title>

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for Array, the newsletter of the International Computer Music Association, 1993 


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I would like to say that gender and computer music are unrelated. That women and men create computer music, and experience it as their art. However when I attend the ICMC and look around, I find I am often one of only a few women in the room. There are few women represented on the concerts, and fewer doing papers. While I know many women doing computer music, I only know of only one woman computer music professor. Since there is no reason to believe women are less intelligent or creative, I wonder how they have been so effectively filtered out of this field. Some of the reason is no doubt a self- perpetuating system. If there is likely to be discrimination, many minorities will play it safe and choose a career that will bring a secure job rather than a new artistic field which may not. Also, if there are no women doing something, those who do attempt to do it feel less comfortable trying. A male culture is built up in which women find less resonance. Women are no doubt encouraged to think more intuitively and less technically. Since computers and composition are both fields with less women than the average, it perhaps is not surprising in that the intersection of these fields there are even less women. However there are women who do try to overcome this and do computer music. Supposing there must also be some mechanism keeping women out other than their own choices seems entirely reasonable considering the history of social and political inequality women have experienced. How does this work? I first want to say that I have not felt particularly oppressed doing computer music as a woman. Most people I have worked with would prefer equality. The competitive aspect of our culture, however, does color perception and action. A woman can be seen as an easy target. She can be accused of achieving things because she was a woman: she must have slept with someone to get somewhere; she must have been given special treatment; it must have been her father/husband/boyfriend's influence/money/teaching. She can be criticized as "not being a true woman" - unattractive, the ultimate insult for one whose traditional role has been as a sexual slave and childbearer, or unmotherly, as when hiring illegal nannies or not baking cookies. Not that these myths are ever really believed by people, but they can create enough energy temporarily to thwart many efforts toward change. This competition and political intrigue merely results in limiting the culture. I won't exclude women from blame either, as some of the more vicious attacks may even come from them. Remember Liz Holtzman's attacks on Geraldine Ferraro. More often, devaluation of a woman's work is done subtley, by a casual comment implying the insignificance or non-legitimacy, a joke, or a concert ignored. 

But I do not want to take on the tone of a victim wailing against the evil oppressor. Women clearly have much to give to computer music, even if the reverse is not yet true. I could go on trying analyze the mechanics of bias, but I think it is more important for each person to do that for him/herself. We all grow up in a biased culture, and all absorb it in different ways. It is up to us to honestly assess how to change it personally within our lives. The recent backlash against the "politically correct" is understandable. Labelling the personal efforts of people to make change as "politically correct" creates a distance from the idea, and is a useful weapon for those who would prefer things as they are. Making change is hard. We have to think about it. Sometimes we can't do something that we thought was "fun" before. Sometimes a woman may even take advantage of a situation to her own undeserved benefit. But how often does this happen in comparison to the continual bias in the opposite direction? Look around. Who is making the decisions about who is hired, promoted, commissioned, and honored? It is certainly easier to have rapport with those who we have something in common with, so if the decision-makers are mostly men it is not surprising that they choose men to work with. But we do not have insight and creativity to waste in this world. While I do not want to stereotype women's contributions as always "more intuitive", if this aspect of women's music is sometimes more developed, perhaps it would make computer music more human and accessible to people. Computer music is not so complete, complex, sophisticated and joyful today that we do not need women's voices. 



A number of women responded to this article, including Mari Kimura, Katherine Norman, and Frances White.



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<a href="mailto:marahelmuth@gmail.com">marahelmuth<i>at</i>gmail.com</a>