Time for women to rock the house—part one

Whenever I look at the history of rock—as I frequently do to harvest lessons for mainstream business (and especially for business teams)—I’m always struck by one disconcerting detail: the early years of rock & roll featured few women.

Yes, there were some successful female pop singers—and soulful “Girl Groups”—in the 50s and early 60s, but rock & roll was primarily a men’s club for a full decade after Little Richard and Chuck Berry first lit up the charts in 1955. (Just as true on the business side, where female record producers, business managers, and music promoters were virtually non-existent.)

Starting around 1967, rock bands with female vocalists began to emerge on the national stage—e.g., The Jefferson Airplane (with Grace Slick) and Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin). By the mid-70s there was no shortage of top women rock singers, appearing solo or in bands—from Tina Turner to Linda Ronstadt to Stevie Nicks to Deborah Harry to Patti Smith and many more. Today there are dozens of female rockers—like Hayley Williams in Paramore—fronting top-selling bands, and living their "daydreams."

So what’s the business lesson here? Simply this: talented women dealing with deep-seated gender bias in male-dominated industries (like R&R) can, with persistence, find seats at the table. Of course they shouldn’t have to fight so hard in the first place. But in the end they have the ability to stake their claim. If they can do it in rock & roll they can do it in other places—for instance, in hi-tech, which is one of the worst environments for gender equality at the moment.

Silicon Valley in particular has been spotlighted for its resistance to high-powered women in leadership positions. Note Apple’s two-hour product roll-out in September that featured six men and no women on stage—as mentioned here. Or Microsoft’s CEO advising women not to ask for a raise because if they don't they’ll be rewarded with “good karma"—as highlighted here.

The problem is often framed as a human rights issue. Fair enough, but that misses the larger point. Women bring different perspectives and skills to the table—in the rock world or the tech sector. When the full complement of humanity is not involved in the design, development, or sales of a product, it's the consumer who loses. And these days that consumer more often speaks with a woman's voice. (Women buy more computer devices than men do.)

It's always a good thing to have the voice of the buyer represented in the business that wishes to sell to that buyer. Just sayin'.

To be continued in the coming months!

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    1. Yes. The biggest would be Aretha, if you consider her rock. (It's always a debate whether so-and-so is doing "rock.") If we want to get more inclusive we could include some of the Girl Groups like the Supremes or folk/acoustic talent like Joni Mitchell. There were also capable women writers in the Brill Building community in the early 60s, including Carole King. But women became a real force in rock in the 70s and beyond.

  1. Our family business would collapse like a wet tissue without the symbiosis of Best Beloved's skills and perspectives balanced with my own.

    Greatest musical fun I've ever had was performing with my middle daughter. Stupendous singer who sees everything in the world differently than I do.

    Business men who don't embrace the other 51% of the population have been shooting themselves in the foot for ages.

    Annie Haslam may or may not be rock, but her 5-octave range was the right medium for Betsy Thatcher's lyrics when Renaissance performed. Four men in the band, and not one really stole the show like those lyrics and that voice.

    Gonna enjoy this series, John; thanks.

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