On Sept. 19, Hong Perez, a former sales executive for Spotify, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the streaming giant and her then-boss, U.S. head of sales Brian Berner. Spotify said in a statement that it doesn’t “tolerate discrimination of any kind, at any level,” calling the claims “without merit.” But the complaint outlined several instances of alleged bias and discrimination — from a male counterpart getting a larger salary increase and equity award despite “performance issues,” to another male employee receiving a promotion despite sexual harassment claims and multiple warnings from the company, to Berner blaming Perez for his own professional wrongdoings while under investigation by Spotify’s internal audit team. Berner then fired Perez for allegedly violating the corporate code of conduct shortly after his own investigation, despite having previously given other male colleagues a free pass, according to the complaint.
“The music business has had a reputation of gender bias and discrimination for a while, but those issues have recently plagued the Silicon Valley tech-focused machinery as well, in terms of the problems that women face,” Perez’s lawyer Seth Rafkin, founder of Rafkin Esq., tells Billboard. “It’s a collision of old and new industries that, from the vantage point of gender equality and women’s experiences, aren’t all that different.”
Mostly men have helmed music’s big streaming services since they launched, and though their approach to technology has been innovative, their approach to hiring has not so much. Women account for 49 percent of employees overall at Pandora, but that share drops to 38 percent for leadership roles. Spotify revealed less encouraging numbers in its latest diversity data report in July: 38.7 percent of its employees identify as women, with that share declining to 31.9 percent of those in leadership positions (director level and higher). SoundCloud and YouTube rank lower on gender parity, with women comprising only around 35 percent and 30 percent of total employees, respectively. Apple Music, Tidal and Deezer haven’t disclosed diversity statistics.
YouTube is the only major streaming platform with a female CEO, Susan Wojcicki. Both Spotify and Pandora have only two female C-suite executives: chief human resources officer Katarina Berg and chief content officer Dawn Ostroff at Spotify, and chief human resources officer Kristen Robinson and chief marketing officer Aimée Lapic at Pandora. Desiree Perez is the only such executive at Jay-Z-owned Tidal, serving as COO. The only female C-Suite executives hired at SoundCloud — Alison Moore (former chief revenue officer) and Holly Lim (former CFO) — have left the company.
“A lot of these companies begin with a startup mentality and an attitude of disruption,” says Rafkin Esq. attorney Jennifer Bogue. “There ends up being little to no infrastructure in terms of the proper protections and bias training because the companies are singularly focused on growth.”
“Companies with venture-capital money are constantly weighing short- and long-term solutions, and some might feel early on that they don’t have the time to invest in diversity,” adds Beckie Wood, vp content programming, catalog and insights at Pandora. “It’s not that there aren’t the right diverse candidates out there or that there are no women in engineering — that’s just not true. Those roles just take a longer time to fill.”
But it’s not just men who have biases. “At one point, I was charged with hiring interns, and they all ended up being men,” says a female streaming executive. “I was shocked at myself. I was giving lip service to gender equality without actually doing it. When you go day to day with majority-male meetings, you start unconsciously thinking to yourself, ‘Am I the inferior gender? Is that person really more qualified?’ It messes with your mind.”
Some streaming leaders want to do better. “There is no reason a company like Spotify shouldn’t be able to be completely gender-equal,” said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in June 2017 at the launch event for the Equalizing Project, a gender-equality music initiative that his company founded in partnership with producer Max Martin’s MXM Music and Swedish publishers association Musikförläggarna. The Equalizing Project has hosted networking events in Sweden and a regular podcast in Swedish.
Ek, who already offers employees six months of parental leave, vowed to tackle biased hiring. “You get the same old excuses, that there are not enough talented or educated people, which is BS and that I don’t believe for a second,” he said at the event, adding that “Spotify would be perceived differently if more women came through.”
Pandora set concrete benchmarks for improving diversity, pledging in a 2016 post to achieve gender parity in both hiring and promotion practices by 2020. The company recently hired a new director of diversity and inclusion. Streaming services are also diversifying their job interviewers and eliminating gender bias in job descriptions.
But for some, it’s too late. “I really believe if I had been a man, I would’ve had more success,” says a female former digital music executive. “I’ve seen men jump two, even three positions after doing less work.”