Live’s Glass Ceiling: Broken, But Not Yet Smashed

NOT A “WOMENS” PANEL: (L-R) Jaclyn Lash, San Diego Padres/Petco Park; Alex DePersia, Laffitte Management Group; Tracy Lane, Trio Presents; Corrie Martin, Wasserman Music; Lesley Olenik, Live Nation and Cheryl Paglierani, United Talent Agency, talk artist and audience development during Pollstar Live! in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 22. Photo by Connor Gaskey

When Pollstar began honoring its “Women Of Live” back in 2020, the list of nominees being considered was long, but not nearly as long as it was this year. That’s a reflection of the pace at which women have risen to more prominent positions in the industry and a result of inclusion efforts industrywide.

A common refrain among our 2023 Women Of Live honorees is they see inclusion and diversity has greatly improved from years past but still has a long way to go.

As Messina Touring Group Executive Vice President Kate Des Enfants McMahon puts it, “The first job I got as a promoter was in 1989 and it was a completely different landscape. I was the only woman in the concert division. I never felt like I had a seat at the table. I was hearing about things at the last minute and never felt like I was going to move up or get a promotion. Now … our executive team is mostly women, it’s a 180-degree change.”
Messina Touring Group may be the exception to the rule, however. As AEG Presents’ Brittanie Delava says, “Until nearly every executive suite is 50/50 men and women, we haven’t made it.”

Creating job titles and relentless recruiting will fill some of that gap, but not all. It’s not enough to see that data, the raw numbers of women who are in or have been recruited into the industry over the last few years and say, “Our job here is done.”

It is better. It does have a long way to go. Certainly, the increase in numbers of women in executive positions didn’t occur overnight; neither will full inclusion. The glass ceiling for women in the C-suite has been cracked with several in major agency co-head positions.
Lucy Dickins was named WME Global Head of Contemporary Music and Touring in August, 2022, while Kirk Sommer remains Co-Head of the division. But we still have yet to see a woman at the head seat on a board of directors at the major agency, management or promoter level.

As Pollstar reported last year, researchers for the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2021 examined whether artist gender influenced the composition of teams and found that 84% of women artists had at least one woman agent, manager or publicist compared to 70.8% of male artists. While 69.9% of women had two or more female representatives, this wasn’t the case for men: only 38.7% of male artists had two or more women on their teams.

“The data for artists and their teams reveals that artists’ identity is driving inclusive choices in team composition,” the study concluded.

The proliferation of women on the top touring charts, therefore, should be reflected by the number of women on their teams.

Lizzo not only has her “Big Grrrls” – the all-woman dancers of all shapes, colors and sizes that grace her concert stage. She also has surrounded herself with predominantly women at all levels of her organization.

Of Lizzo’s core production team, 15 of its 44 members are women. Led by tour manager Carlina Gugliotti, several play key roles that have traditionally been filled by men, including B-Party tour manager Molly Gordon, Lighting Director Katherine “Kat” Borderud, Video Director Colleen Wittenberg and accountant Ashley Joshi.

On top of that, there are 18 women sharing the stage with Lizzo and an office team that includes Full Stop Management day-to-day manager Alana Balden and a business management team of four women: Joshi, Cat Marcasciano, Michelle Cope and Lauren Lee.

“It was intentional,” Gugliotti told Pollstar last fall. “But it also happened that we’ve ended up with diverse personnel when it’s been middle-aged white men as a rule. We widened our search rather than going for people we already knew.”

In recent years, organizations like Diversify The Stage, Femme It Forward, She Is The Music and many others have helped identify young women, as well as people of color, LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming persons, and recruit them into the industry as well as into training programs to provide them with the skills to thrive in live.

The establishment of more internships and scholarships for women recruits has helped tremendously as well, as have efforts to recruit through HBCUs.

“Our internship program took off,” offered Tracey Jenkins, senior vice president of HR for Sodexo Live! North America. “Last year we brought in 55 interns and we have 75 to 80 this year. To date, we have hired 10 to 12 full time. That’s one of our keys: building that pipeline early and giving them a great experience.”

Shauna Elvin, chief human resources officer for ASM Global, adds “We gave out 28 scholarships last year in the U.S. and next year that will be global. There’s a vetting process, certainly, but at the end, the majority of the scholarships went to women. We’re really committed and really focused on women in leadership.”

Ali Harnell, Global President and Chief Strategy Officer of Live Nation Women says, “The state of women in the live business is ever evolving and progressing. I think we are moving in the right direction and that there is a lot of focus and intention on ways to support women and to become more inclusive.

“We have to rethink everything and actively work to transform systems and workplaces that were not initially built for women and therefore do not work for them.”
The live entertainment work environment is by no means an “8 to 5” proposition. At every level, there are shows to see and travel to undertake.

Creating a work/life balance that enhances promotion opportunities can be especially daunting for women.

Fortunately, many companies and Human Resources departments have begun to recognize that support for women and their families with kids, older parents or spouses/partners with disabilities is needed to ensure caregiving isn’t a roadblock to the highest career levels.

Societal changes recognizing shared caregiving responsibilities within families help clear the path for women – upon whom those responsibilities have traditionally been heavily assigned.

Working nights and weekends contributed to the male-dominated industry. And when women were offered career-advancing opportunities – for instance a better job at a venue in another city – women were often faced with weighing career advancement with family needs including childcare and spousal/partner considerations.

Women in Music President Nicole Barsalona is also an artist manager and has seen the evolution in the live industry practically from the cradle as the daughter of agency icon Frank Barsalona, possibly the first “super agent” in music with Premier Talent.

“You don’t see as many young girls being encouraged to go into this line of work on the executive side or on the artist side, and it really is part of the issue,” Barsalona says. “And the other part is they don’t see themselves. I grew up in the business, both my parents were in the industry. So I knew about it and I saw women who were in the business and women at the top.

“But those women who I saw, the couple who were my mentors and powerhouses in the business, were women who had devoted their entire lives to this work and fought tooth and nail to get where they were. These two women who were mentors, they didn’t have families, weren’t married.

“I wanted to be able to both have a personal life for myself outside of the business and to work in the business,” Barsalona says. “I was literally told that if I got married and had kids, I would lose motivation.”

Barsalona left her job for two years, saying, “I don’t see how it’s sustainable. There’s no system where I could potentially bring a kid on the road if I were a tour manager.” She believed that the load that has traditionally fallen to women dealing with so much at home was not compatible with the concert business. That is, until she attended a panel at South By Southwest one year.

“I saw a ‘moms in music’ panel,” she explains. “It was artist managers and they were mothers and they were making it work. And I was so inspired. I was like, ‘You know what? Manager.’ It was that representation that let me do that, and without seeing those women having that talk that day, I don’t know that I would have pursued it.”