Surviving as a woman guitarist in heavy metal: players detail the sexism they face online

Nikki Stringfield, Marcela Campos, Stephanie Bradley and Guitar Gabby
(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images / Press / Dionne McDonald)

Backstage, onstage, behind the scenes and even in the bathroom: harassment is always a problem for female metal guitarists. Although diversity grows with every passing year, the industry struggles to balance itself. In 2019, 7.7 per cent of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees were women. The New York Times might be plastering “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women” over its pages, but even Google can’t muster much more than Joni Mitchell.

Sophie Burrell, a UK metal guitarist, touched on the subject this time last year. “The audience [that comes with metal] can be quite discouraging at times,” she said in an interview for “A lot of, ‘She’s good, but for a girl,’ sort of stuff. Which is really crap.”

“It’s a very annoying topic,” agrees Stephanie Bradley, a shred guitarist who posts much of her content on social media. “Just a couple days ago, I got – and I haven’t gotten this in years – something like, ‘Oh, can you cook?’ and, ‘Why aren’t you in the kitchen?’ and I...” She collapses into laughter. 

“I was honestly shocked. It doesn’t offend me at all, and that’s probably its own problem, because it’s a little sad that as a woman I’m so used to it. And, being a female guitar player, it’s odd because I don’t know what it feels like to not be a girl in this industry.” 

Gabriella Logan, known as Guitar Gabby on Instagram, spoke to us on Zoom a couple of weeks later. Much of her image depicts her role as a metal guitarist, but her bio is filled with a wealth of other achievements, from being a writer, an entrepreneur and a talent consultant to an academic. Despite her credentials, Logan notes how she can’t conquer the world even though she has the tools to do it.

Two years ago, Logan was featured in an issue of Guitar World – she was thrilled to be appearing in the magazine, in particular GW’s commemorative Eddie Van Halen issue, which paid tribute to the late guitar legend. The public, however, were not so gracious.

“I remember when they posted it on their Facebook page,” she says. “It was so bad. It was really bad. And the more I elevate in the industry, the more I get those types of things that are uncensored. And most of the time they’re not stopped.” 

Some guitarists notice a difference in tone between Instagram and Facebook – it tends to be the case that Instagram users write comments that are warmer and more supportive, in comparison to the ones posted by Facebook users.

“I actually did get a different response on Instagram compared to Facebook,” said Logan. “Instagram’s comments were much more uplifting. I definitely got a few weirdos saying stuff but, overall, two very different responses.” 

According to a recent study, Instagram demographics show just over 30% of users are aged between 25-34, with the 18-24 bracket close behind. Facebook, however, is the most popular social media network for 35-44 year olds. From this, the data suggests age and generation is a factor when it comes to adaptability and acceptance. 

“While I have got a lot of really bad, sexist and racist things over the years – very recently too – it has made my skin a lot thicker,” concludes Logan.

Nikki Stringfield

(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

In her living room, with three signature guitars hanging behind her, Nikki Stringfield, lead guitarist of the Iron Maidens, echoes the same last eight words. As is the case for roughly 20.5% of women in the industry, she deals with this feeling most days. 

“It was really rough at first, and over the years I’ve been like, ‘Huh, whatever. Block,’” she notes. “I love that block button.”

If we took a group of people and asked them to turn round, would they know whether it’s a guy or girl playing? No, because there is no difference

Nikki Stringfield

“The funniest thing,” Stringfield adds, “is that no one pays attention to the music anymore. If we took a group of people, lined them up in front of a stage and asked them to turn round, would they know whether it’s a guy or girl playing? No, because there is no difference.

“It’s a piece of wood and some strings. You’re not going to know if it’s just a bunch of girls up there. It’s going to sound like Iron Maiden. But it’s just always been like that.”

Bradley thinks the same: “There are a lot of assumptions, like, ‘Why is she smiling?’ and stuff like that. Music is about opinion, listening, and feeling something. And if you don’t like it, or don’t feel connected to that, that’s okay. 

“It’s all opinion and taste, and I don’t expect everyone to like what I play. I play because I like it, and if they don’t, that’s a bummer I guess, but that’s completely fine.”

According to recent studies, telling women to smile has become a form of micro-aggression, which can be defined as small amounts of passive aggression that lead to harassment, tension, and loss of confidence. A survey found that 98% of women reported being told to smile at work during some point in their lives, and 15% noted the occurrence happens weekly, if not frequently. 

“You’re either smiling too much, or you’re bitchy and not smiling enough,” says Stringfield. “It’s weird for me, because I’ve started doing these videos on social media, and I’m like, I don’t know what to do with my face. People are going to be like, 'Why are you doing that with your face?’ no matter what you do.”

Appearance, particularly clothing, is used as a tool for sexism. A quarter of all women have been asked to dress more provocatively during video meetings, and law firm Slater and Gordon said the pandemic has challenged sexism to exist in new, “insidious” ways.

Lydia Kovats, a young metal guitarist with a smaller social media presence, doesn’t escape unwanted harassment. Her death metal band, Scorch, allows her to experience audiences in person, too.

“For me personally, I don’t really have much of a feminine style,” Kovats says. “I honestly just wear whatever’s comfortable.

“Mostly, when I record my videos, it’s when I’m coming back from class and it’s a way for me to unwind,” she continues. “But I’ve noticed that views on my videos are less than other women who dress a little more revealing. Not that it’s bad to dress like that, but it feels like pressure to wear something more feminine or show a bit more skin.”

Logan, who doesn’t have a strict dress code for herself, also commented on the image problem: “It’s unfortunate. If you ignore it – if you make a face to show you’re really not interested in engaging – you get called other names.” 

Marcela Campos is a Brazilian blues guitarist who began her guitar-playing journey in the metal realm. Despite the genre switch, Campos tells us she's all too familiar with sexism in music; being blonde is enough of a disadvantage.

“’Oh, I’m going to get a blonde wig to see if I can get that many followers,’” she scowls, recalling one of many snide remarks she regularly gets. “That’s a thing, though: people think if they get a blonde wig they can get all the endorsements.

For girls, haters go particularly hard. There’s still this mentality that this is a male industry

Marcela Campos

“And haters are going to hate – you’ll always get those people – but for girls they go particularly hard. There’s still this mentality that this is a male industry. Like, ‘What are you doing here?’”

The USC’s (United States Code) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative did a third annual report on the music industry in 2020. It showed an improving demographic balance in the recording studio – but barely. Things are nowhere close to equal. The number of top songs made by women was at 16.8% in 2017, but now it’s only just over 22.5%. In addition, Rolling Stone reported the main barriers to career success for women in the field are objectification, stereotyping and being a statistical minority.

“It sucks that you put something out and you know that someone’s going to probably say something sexist,” says Bradley. “Maybe compliment you by saying, 'You’re good for a girl,' which isn’t a compliment. It could be, because there are a lot of girls who are really good, so it doesn’t bother me, but I don’t think it’s meant nicely.” 

Stephanie Bradley

Stephanie Bradley (Image credit: Stephanie Bradley)

Annenberg Inclusion lead author Stacy Smith said that being a woman itself is a barrier to navigating the industry. It’s difficult to please anyone when you’re a girl. Although the industry has favored apathetic female performers, research shows empathy is a strong component aiding sexism. Around 37% of women in the workplace admitted to feeling pressure to socialize more with peers, or act as a comfort friend.

“Sometimes I play more serious, ‘hard’ things, and it’s hard for me to play guitar at the same time as look at the camera and interact more with my viewers,” concedes Kovats. “I get comments that say, ‘Oh, you look like you’re having a miserable time.’”

Kovats prefers to focus on what she’s playing and filming videos for her own personal growth. Her Instagram following is smaller than Stringfield’s, for instance, and she isn’t an extrovert. 

“I get, ‘You look like you’re so bored,’ but it’s literally because when you’re playing onstage with a group of people, the main focus is honestly on the front person: the singer,” she continues. “And that person is the one who’s supposed to be interacting with the audience.

Lydia Kovats performing live

Lydia Kovats (Image credit: Lydia Kovats)

“For me, that’s just my own style of playing. Of course, when you’re playing live, it’s better not to look down so much, and try look more towards the audience. But I do...” She stops to sigh.

“I notice, when I record a video, even if it’s 10 seconds, I try my best to look at the camera. But when the song progresses, I forget about it, and then I go back to my serious look. And it’s like, I didn’t smile enough, or I didn’t look at the camera enough, so I need to interact more. But, at the end of the day, I’m playing very difficult stuff. My job is to focus on what I’m doing.” 

As for whether the problem will reside in a few years, Logan offers an “optimistic but realistic” assessment, and warns women entering the industry of the possibility of experiencing mental health issues.

Misogyny is not going to go away, I've accepted that. What I will not accept is people not being willing to learn

Gabby Logan

Logan concludes, “I would say if you’re young, or even if you’re older, and you’re entering into this industry, definitely expect the possibility of [mental health issues]. But be aware of yourself and what you know to be true.

“[Misogyny] is not going to go away, and I’m fine with that. I’ve accepted that. What I will not accept – and what I’ve been actively using my skill set to contribute to the movement we’re in right now – is people not being willing to learn.”

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