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Women in the music industry

Our Music Coordinator Jade writes about women in the music industry and the trailblazers who broke through the glass ceiling.

Ella Fitzgerald


It’s no secret that the music industry is still very much a male-dominated environment, with women less than a quarter of the those currently working in the industry.

With women making up just 21% of artists, 14% of songwriters and 2.6% of producers, we still have a long way to go to reach gender equality. So let’s take a look at some of the inspirational women that paved the way for women in music, and fought back against gender discrimination within the industry.


Ella Fitzgerald

1917 –1996

First Lady of Song

Known as the First Lady of Song and the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most influential and celebrated singers of all time.

At age 17, Ella’s music career launched after her singing debut at Amateur Nights at The Apollo Theatre, where she won first prize. The prize included the chance to perform at The Apollo, but due to the theatre being unhappy with her physical appearance she never received an opportunity.

Despite being very self-conscious about her appearance, and for a time having doubts about her vocal abilities, Ella went on to enjoy an extremely successful music career selling over 40 million albums worldwide and becoming the most popular jazz singer of all time. Ella was also the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award.


Mary Shipman Howard


First female sound engineer

Photograph from Discogs

Mary Shipman Howard was one of the first female sound engineers and recording studio owners.

Mary was a classical violist, but started experimenting with sound recording in the 1930s. She applied for a sound engineer job at NBC in the 1940s, but was instead hired as a secretary, as women were not allowed in the NBC union. It wasn’t until staff shortages in the war that Mary was allowed to begin working at NBC as a sound engineer.

Mary went on to own and operate a successful recording studio and released commercial recordings under her MHR label.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

1915 –1973

Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, better known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who broke both gender and race ideologies of the 1930s and 40s.

During the height of racism and black segregation, she famously toured with all-white male bands, was openly in a same-sex relationship, and was recognised as an exceptionally talented female guitarist – practically unheard of in the music industry of the time.

Sister Rosetta’s guitar style and use of gospel music made her sound unique and it had a significant impact on popular music.

Tharpe would go on to influence many for years to come, including popular artists such as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.


Ethel Gabriel


First female record producer

Photograph from

Ethel Gabriel was the first female record producer for a major label, and enjoyed a successful career spanning over four decades. Gabriel started working as a secretary at a recording studio in the 1940s, but only produced her first session when her manager called in sick and asked her to cover for him.

Ethel’s career eventually led her to become a producer for major record label RCA, where she produced countless award-winning albums for artists such as Elvis Presley.


Annie Nightingale


First Female DJ

Photograph from the BBC

Annie Nightingale was Britain’s first female DJ, and in the 1970s became the first woman broadcaster to land a job with BBC’s Radio 1.

Despite her impressive experience as a music journalist and TV presenter, she was first rejected by the BBC as they explained “DJs were ‘husband substitutes’ for women who were listening at home while ‘doing the ironing’”.

Nightingale finally landed the position at Radio 1 after being recommended to a BBC producer by The Beatles’ press officer, but still fought against sexism, with Annie herself admitting the BBC was ‘waiting for her to fail’.

Annie is now the BBC’s longest-serving broadcaster and the only female DJ in the world to have been honoured with an MBE.



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