Much has been made lately of the music industry’s male-dominated culture, with reports such as the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealing that female producers only make up 2% of the industry and just 12% of songwriters are women. But Berklee College of Music is doing its part to help challenge those statistics. Over the past decade, the renowned music school has been making conscious efforts to expand its arsenal of female students, instructors and staff in the hopes of empowering women to excel within the music industry and, in the past few years, has increased female enrollment by 65%.
This is largely due to the efforts of Debbie Cavalier, CEO of Berklee Online, who after being appointed to the position in 2012 restructured her team with more female instructors — growing from 28% women in 2012 to 33% in 2018.
Prior to holding her current position, Cavalier was part of the leadership team that founded Berklee’s online school in 2002. Back then she saw the need for this initiative, but she wasn’t in a position of authority to be able to implement any sort of change. “I’ve been part of Berklee Online since the beginning, and from the beginning it was a team of very talented, primarily male staff. As the organization grew over the years, it remained male-dominated,” Cavalier tells Billboard. But when she finally advanced to CEO a decade later, she was ready to do something about that.
To change up her student pool, Cavalier began reconsidering how her organization had been marketing itself to new students. “I think it’s important for people to see themselves in the imagery that any organization puts out in order to convey a welcoming environment. I wanted our potential students to see themselves in our images,” she says, of working to include more females and those with diverse backgrounds in the recruiting campaigns. Cavalier also started to make sure that students were selected from a wide array of backgrounds, a notion she’s put into practice taking extra steps to “advertise in places that cater to a more diverse candidate pool for every open position at Berklee Online,” such as a variety of job boards focused on ethnic minorities, women, military veterans, members of the LGBTQ community and more.
And from an instructor perspective, Berklee Online now focuses on requesting recommendations from department chairs and deans for a diverse pool of faculty or people out in the industry. Cavalier cites Pinar Toprak, an instructor of the Film Scoring 101 course, who was also the first female film composer on a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Captain Marvel, as an example of a faculty member who is a great mentor to the female students that the school is looking to attract.
Toprak is happy to be in a position to help inspire other women to follow in her footsteps. “It starts very young and it starts from education. We need to see more women who apply to [film scoring] schools knowing that they could actually have a career. Because even me, I went to Berklee but I didn’t think, when I started out, that I could be a film scoring major. But hopefully this will give inspiration to others who maybe don’t think that they can do something because of wherever they were born,” she explains.
Cavalier says she’s challenged all of the school’s hiring managers to be deliberate about trying to fill all open positions with even representation from all genders. “So it’s not just up to me, it’s a philosophy that our entire team buys into. It’s celebrated when a candidate pool is evenly distributed,” she says.
Other women in a key leadership role at Berklee Online who are helping to drive this initiative forward include Alison Plante, the program director of the new Film Scoring Master’s Program at Berklee Online, and Tonya Butler, assistant chair of the music business/management department at Berklee College of Music and instructor of the Music Business Management and Leadership course at Berklee Online.
Butler agrees that the transformation is much needed, noting that throughout her more than 14 years of experience as an entertainment attorney and label executive, she often found herself as the only woman in the room. Thus, she’s thrilled to be able to help up-and-coming female students feel that making it as a music industry exec in this day and age is definitely possible.
“When I talk to young women, I tell them all the time, ‘First of all, you need to be good at what you do, no matter what it is. No one can challenge your level of education and no one can challenge your level of expertise.’ The second thing I tell them is that, ‘You need to work on soft skills,’ and most of the time women inherently have good soft skills or should I say at least better than most men, really have to work hard at working with others and being a team player. But I do make sure that the women I counsel recognize that it’s not only important to be good at what you do but to be a good person because that will also stand out,’” she explains.
Plante says she has mixed emotions about being the first chair of a collegiate film-scoring department, which she says only further illustrates the need for more women in music. “I was both thrilled to be that first, but also, there was some sadness that it was 2016, and that there was a first of anything,” she explains.
Going forward, Cavalier will continue to make inspiring females to seek out careers in music her main priority. “We’re doing surveys and research for new programs, and we want to be sure that the programs that we offer, the courses and certificate programs and degree programs, resonate just as much with a potential female student body as male,” she explains.
The CEO notes that Berklee is also working to build programs that are market-driven, taking into consideration what potential female students are looking for from the school that it doesn’t currently offer. “We are continuing to proactively work to diversify the gender makeup of our team and will continue to be deliberate in our messaging and imagery to ensure female students can see themselves succeed at Berklee Online,” she says.
And since these new programs have been put in place, there are many success stories that Cavalier is proud of.
Kele Currier, who graduated from Berklee Online in 2019 with her bachelors in Music Business, has gone on to work as the assistant vp strategic services for ASCAP’s Nashville office. “Two months after graduating from Berklee Online, she was promoted to this position and says it would not have been possible without her Berklee education,” says Cavalier
Ashley “PK” Mogayzel is another example of a Berklee Online victory. She graduated with an advanced certificate in Artist Management in 2012 and is now the assistant tour manager for Wilco and the tour manager for I’m With Her. And after completing her certificate in songwriting through Berklee Online while simultaneously touring as a vocalist and performer with Cirque Du Soleil, Eirini Tornesaki went on to receive a full scholarship to Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute in Boston and, per Cavalier, is a vocalist of Greek traditional music, jazz, and contemporary styles.
Says Cavalier, “There’s a Harvard Business Review article that speaks to something that I’d like to convey to women who aspire to leadership roles in the music industry: Believe in yourself, know that you have the skills you need to succeed, and if you have areas that you need to develop for a given opportunity, say yes to the opportunity and then develop those skills. The article that I’m talking about points to research that shows that men are more willing to say yes to a ‘stretch’ opportunity than women. This has a compounding impact on a person’s career. If a man is taking advantage of these things and a woman is not, the career trajectory over time looks very different.
“If you’ve studied at Berklee or Berklee Online, I can guarantee that you have the skills needed to succeed. I can speak to it as an alum. Make a spot for yourself. Take advantage of opportunities and don’t second guess yourself.”
The advice I would give to any woman coming up in her career is to take advantage of professional opportunities, particularly the ones that may feel like a bit of a stretch. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn, grow and propel your career forward. Looking back, those were the pivotal and transformative moments in my own career. Going from being a classroom music teacher to a music education publisher, for example, or from an academic dean to the CEO of Berklee Online: Those were big leaps, and I had gaps to fill, but it all worked out so well.
It’s a good idea to network, nurture your professional relationships, and find a mentor: Someone whose career path inspires you and with whom your values align.
What’s tough is that in addition to underrepresentation, there is still a great deal of disparity in compensation between men and women in this country. It’s exciting to see the conversation around this moving into the mainstream media of late, thanks to the US women’s soccer captain Megan Rapinoe and her teammates using their platform to champion the cause. The film industry is doing good work in this regard as well. I’m hopeful these efforts will usher in a new era with equal pay for women.
I’ve learned that a team is only as strong as the diversity of its members. Berklee Online is the strongest it has ever been, and that is largely because it’s also more of a diverse organization than it has ever been. We still have a long way to go, but we are making good progress.
I knew I was committed to music when I was a little girl and would watch my grandfather play piano and write music. He was an A&R executive for RCA in the ’50s and ’60s and had his own orchestra, the Marty Gold Orchestra. They recorded some of the very first stereo records. I spent hours on end listening to his albums. He’s the reason I wanted to be a musician.
Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact email@example.com.