Once again, the Grammys have a woman problem. It’s the third year in a row that I’ve written about this and, somehow, the problem not only persists but gets bigger each year. 2020 finds the Recording Academy’s board facing their biggest woman problem yet: their newest CEO and president, Deborah Dugan. Dugan was placed on administrative leave 10 days before the 2020 Grammy Awards following allegations of workplace bullying. Instead of going quietly into the night, she’s chosen to fight back. Dugan filed a legal claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filled with shocking accusations. Now, the entire music industry is now watching it unfold days before the ceremony, which happens on Sunday, January 26, transfixed.
The accusation that the awards are rigged so that board members can change them at will to benefit artists they represent, or just like, is the least shocking part of the scandal. What’s horrifying is the bombshell accusation that former Recording Academy CEO and president, Neil Portnow, the man who we all thought resigned in the wake of his controversial comments that women needed to “step up,” allegedly did not have his contract renewed because an artist who is a member of the Academy accused him of rape. He denies the allegation and says that an independent investigation cleared him, though it had been until then withheld from the public and reportedly from some members of the board. Dugan’s suit asserts that it is, to her knowledge, why he was removed from his office.
What’s also horrifying is the recounting of how Joel Katz, an outside attorney who represents the Academy, took Dugan to a dinner after she was offered the job where he tried to kiss her and asked if she wanted to visit some of his multiple homes across the world. Katz denies the allegation.
What’s additionally horrifying is that Dugan attempted to begin putting into place all the recommendations of the Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force that the Grammys set up to address years of gender and racial diversity problems, only to be shut down by a predominantly white male board who reportedly wanted change — well, as long as it happened slowly and not at their expense.
None of this is the plot of a modern-day horror movie; it’s the actual job Dugan signed up to take following Portnow’s “step up” debacle and shepherding an outdated organization through a PR disaster of its own making. Prior to joining the Academy, Dugan was the CEO of the nonprofit (Red), co-founded by U2’s Bono. She worked as an executive at Disney’s publishing arm and at EMI Records, and started her professional career as a lawyer. The Academy said that she was put on administrative leave after they received a complaint of workplace bullying.
Friends who I’ve known and worked with for years in music told me about unwanted sexual advances and abuse, having to develop strategies to not be alone in a room with certain men — and asked me to never, ever tell those stories.
After #MeToo hit the music industry, women in music started networks to talk about what was happening. As a few men faced ramifications for their alleged misconduct, I listened while they shared information about men who were accused and men whose accusations have yet to see the light of day. Friends who I’ve known and worked with for years in music told me about unwanted sexual advances and abuse, having to develop strategies to not be alone in a room with certain men — and asked me to never, ever tell those stories. We talked about how brave the women who came forward were and watched hopefully as the non-disclosure agreements that protected so many toxic men who jump from job to job in the music industry were identified as a problem. We also discussed the trauma of working in male-dominated spaces and, instead of buying into the “there’s room for one woman” bullshit we’d all been sold, we started believing each other.
For many women in music, especially those who became activists during the thick of #MeToo and have wondered if the music industry would face any further reckoning as the movement shifted from outing abusers to taking them to court, it’s an especially fraught story. It’s the tale of a woman just trying to do the job she thought she was hired for, until she bumps up against sexual misconduct, entrenched sexism and racism, and a lot of white men who will do absolutely anything to protect their own interests. We’re watching one of the most prestigious institutions in music circle the wagons in an attempt to save face and hold onto a way of doing things that led to the systematic underrepresentation of women and people of color in the Grammy Awards.
And we’re watching them sacrifice a woman to do it.
Women in music do not have equal representation. According to numbers crunched by the Annenberg Inclusion Institute, who looked at five awards, the Grammy nominees from 2013-2020 were only 11.7% women. The 2020 Grammy Awards, for which a slew of new voters, comprised mostly of women and minorities, were invited to join the Academy, and for which the nominating committees were 50% women, saw gender parity the awards at an eight-year high, with 20.5% of the nominees being women.
Among Dugan’s accusations in the EEOC complaint comes news that she was offered a salary that was half of what her predecessor was paid, and that the Academy told her she should be “happy” to be paid more than she was at her previous job at (Red). Dugan’s attorney points out that aside from Dugan, no woman has ever surpassed the title of Senior Vice President at the Academy and notes that the board has always been predominantly white and male. Further, one of the things Dugan was trying to change at the Academy was a direct recommendation of the diversity task force: to make the membership, nominating committees, and leadership 50/50 in gender parity.
I remember the first time a man told me he couldn’t play two songs by women in a row — I was an intern at an alternative rock radio station in the late ‘90s. That genre was supposed to be the friendliest place in music for women, who were having a renaissance in rock music. But they were still being held back. I went to work at MTV as my first job after college and in my near-decade there, as well as subsequent jobs at iHeartMedia, CBS Radio, and doing independent consulting and publicity, I never reported to another woman until I started working at Refinery29. I learned through all of those jobs that if I wanted to convince people that a new sound has legs, that some genre of music is going to be cool, or that something has credibility, you go to them with a male artist. Women’s tastes and likes are summarily dismissed even while the spending power of teen girls is coveted and cashed in on — take their money, but don’t take them seriously could be the mantra of the industry.
Among Dugan’s accusations are that she was offered a salary that was half of what her predecessor was paid, and that the Academy told her she should be “happy” to be paid more than she was at her previous job.
Because of #MeToo, women in music finally started to feel like their stories of abuse and being marginalized were being taken seriously. They also started to get the sense, when the Grammys initiated a task force to address inequality and when major festivals like Coachella vowed to work on booking more women, that women artists and their work would be taken seriously. There was some hope that the idea that was just the way things had always been done wasn’t acceptable anymore — and that’s all because of the women who were speaking up.
The boys club is extremely real in music — unlike other parts of the entertainment industry, there is no record label at which a woman is the head and doesn’t report, ultimately, to a man. Men run music — and a small group of men at that — and it guarantees that women can only exert a certain amount of power and enact a limited amount of change.
It’s been pretty quiet in the music networks lately, with conversations of revolution waning while issues of representation and unaddressed misconduct left hanging. Until, that is, Dugan showed up and dropped a bomb on the Grammys which, she told CBS This Morning, was not what she wanted to do. “I only have come out to be here today because I was so severely retaliated against,” Dugan said of the board’s decision to put her on leave.
For their part, the Grammys, which have not publicly announced any plans to address this on the show, slipped an interim CEO into place (Harvey Mason, Jr., a Black man who has produced records by Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears and is currently best known for producing music for films) and quietly cancelled pre-show media events, while host Alicia Keys cancelled pre-show interviews.
Speaking up is hard, as everyone who has watched the Academy try to drag Dugan through the mud this week can clearly see. It’s also the most important thing she, or any woman, can do. As loud as she’s been, there is no way the Academy will get out of addressing the accusations, many of which were long held before they were filed in a legal brief by Dugan, with anything less than full transparency. The boys club may not have wanted change, but they’re about to get it — because someone spoke out.
I hope this prompts more women behind the scenes in music to speak out, and do it loudly, about the ways women aren’t given fair opportunities, about “that’s the way it’s always been” practices that keep women on the sidelines, and about more grave accusations like sexual misconduct that make far too many aspects of working in music needlessly dangerous. Treating women as less than is why they have less radio airplay, fewer Grammy Awards, less opportunity to become producers and engineers, fewer slots at the top of festival bills, less money, less power, less prestige.
Now we’re all watching, because the battle of Dugan vs. Boys Club has ramifications for all those hanging conversations women in music were having. Will we get more leverage and be respected through her as a proxy or does the status quo hold?
Women in the industry are watching very closely to see who wins: The “boys club” that controls the Recording Academy, or the woman who took them on. Will the claims that Dugan didn’t “fit in” or take the time to get to understand the organization and make friends with the board win out over Dugan’s claims of being stifled by a Boys Club and being harassed in the workplace? While the public does not yet have all the details, it appears we might be witnessing the Academy gaslighting both Dugan and the industry, implying she wasn’t equipped for the job and wasn’t a fit for their culture. What the Academy perhaps doesn’t understand is that the eyes of all women are on them as they try to pull this old trick off; we’ve all seen it a million times before. Is this accusation of bullying levied against her, which Dugan confirmed was instigated by her predecessor’s assistant, real or some trap that’s giving them a cliff to throw her off of? Above all: Are these men actually preying on women in the workplace sexually in this day and age and getting away with it?
If we’ve learned one thing from the latest Annenberg study, with its small bump in numbers for women artists, songwriters, and producers, it’s this: Talking about the problem brings it out into the light and energizes people who do care to fix it. That we’re having this conversation about inequity at the Grammys and that the board of the Academy is being publicly held to account for their mistreatment of women in the industry is a huge deal. Keep talking about it, even if it takes another year.
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