Sylvia Rhone had been in the record business for 18 years, so she knew she was making history when she walked into the corporate board room of New York's Time-Life Building on a brisk morning last February.
A Wharton School graduate and single mother, Rhone, 39, was attending for the first time the annual meeting of the policy-making executives that shape the destiny of Warner Music Group, the world's largest recording and publishing combine.
In guiding Warner Music to a $4-billion-a-year operation, the 11 men in the room had signed dozens of female artists--from soul queen Aretha Franklin to sex provocateur Madonna--as part of their massive talent base.
But never before had they welcomed a woman into their inner circle.
"I saw it as a peak event for me personally and a symbolic victory for every woman and minority working in the recording industry," says Rhone, who was invited to the policy summit after being named chair and chief executive officer of Time Warner-owned EastWest Records in late 1991.
"I mean there I was face to face with the myth: the Boys Club . . . the power elite. No woman in the history of the business had ever been asked to join. I knew I had finally arrived. I had broken through the glass ceiling. I was hanging with the big boys."
Right now, Rhone is the most powerful woman in the music industry. She's the only female record company chair and CEO, a title that until now was reserved exclusively for the most distinguished members of the boys club.
However, the Harlem-born African-American executive says her 18-year ascent from secretary to promotion director to record label chief was no cakewalk, but a hard fought victory rife with racist and sexist encounters--including sexual harassment.
Rhone's elevation into the in-ner sanctum came just 15 months after a landmark sexual harassment case at Geffen Records exposed just how bad conditions were for some women working in the industry. The lurid scandal shined a light on the ugly side of the business, forcing those who ran the industry to focus on that problem in a more concerted way. But the case, along with pressures from outside the industry, forced attention to the bigger problem: sexism and the lack of women in positions of power.
Serious questions were raised and continue to be debated as to whether the industry--with its exploitation of sex and misogynist messages in videos and recordings--would ever be able to eradicate sexist attitudes from the workplace. Indeed, women--pigeonholed for decades in low-paying publicity and personnel jobs--have long complained that the industry's male captains view them more as sex objects than human resources and, as a result, have systematically excluded them from the power structure.
To get a picture of the situation now in the record business, Calendar interviewed 70 women--receptionists and publicists to artist managers and vice presidents--who work at various companies throughout the industry. Many reported deep-rooted frustrations about job discrimination and sexism. Almost all the women surveyed said they had to work harder and believed they were passed over more often for promotions than male peers with less skill and experience. Most--who are still trying to climb the corporate ladder--feel the topic is so touchy in the industry that they would comment only under guarantee of anonymity.
Still, even with all the pessimism, an element of optimism was evident. Given the recent elevation of Rhone and dozens of other key female powerbrokers, many of the women interviewed said they felt that measurable progress is being made. Many also thought that observers a decade from now are likely to look back on the early '90s as the beginning of the end for the good ol' boy network.
"The music industry, like the White House, is finally realizing that the contributions of strong women are too important to be ignored," says Michele Anthony, a prominent music attorney promoted to second-in-command at Sony Music three months ago. "We're a new generation of executives empowered to help ensure that creativity breaks through, regardless of gender."
Rhone, Anthony and other female executives point to bold new imperatives at work in the record industry. They attribute the recent shift in power to a growing movement in company boardrooms to re-evaluate the status of women--due largely to the increasing corporatization and internationalization of the music industry.
A flurry of corporate acquisitions in the late '80s ushered in a bottom-line-driven promotion policy that women say may be breaking up the boys club stranglehold on the industry's key positions. Conglomerate chiefs say they have made efforts in recent years to address the shortage of top-level female executives by promoting 170 women to posts of vice president and above at the six major record firms.
At least four of the nation's largest record corporations have recently installed annual management review systems to ensure that women get a fair shake in moving up the corporate ladder. Warner Music has even implemented an international affirmative action mandate, forcing label chiefs to place women into middle management positions.
"Women and other minorities have had a difficult time in gaining access to become an effective part of our industry," says Robert Morgado, chairman of the Warner Music Group and one of the executives responsible for Rhone's elevation. "I think companies have come to realize that casting as wide a net as possible with regard to human resources is not only philosophically proper, it's practical."
Is the pop hierarchy finally on its way to becoming gender-blind or are the promotions of these women merely token gestures by the good ol' boy network to appease affirmative action critics?
Frances W. Preston, president and chief executive officer of Broadcast Music Inc., one of the world's leading performing rights societies, understands why so many observers--especially women--in the record industry are skeptical about real change.
A fixture on the music scene since the '60s, Preston tells of locking horns repeatedly with the music industry's white male power structure in her three-decade rise from Nashville receptionist to BMI chief.
"In the old days, guys would even schedule meetings at clubs that didn't allow women," recalls the New York-based Preston, who says she was forced to develop a thick skin in her struggle to the top. "And when I'd show up, the club simply wouldn't let me in. It's so much better now than it used to be."
Preston pauses, not wanting to overstate the progress.
"It's like racism though," she says. "You can't expect prejudice to just vanish over night. It takes time."
Many women say it is still common for their suggestions to be ignored or usurped without credit by male supervisors. Some questioned whether the men who run the industry will ever be able to distinguish between the women they exploit in song and video and those who work in the office.
"Rock 'n' roll is about sex," says Trish Heimers, vice president of corporate communications at Bertelsmann Music Group. "How can anyone expect a man whose job is to evaluate a naked babe in a video for her bimbette potential to be able to turn around and judge an executive in the office on her intellectual merit or managerial skill?"
While executives interviewed said they encountered fewer demeaning or patronizing remarks than receptionists or secretaries, almost every woman interviewed recalled at least one sexist slight delivered recently by an insensitive male boss, client or co-worker.
One of the most outspoken was Monica Lynch, 36, who generated $29 million in revenues for Time Warner last year as president of Tommy Boy Records, a New York label that specializes in rap and dance music. Lynch applauds her boss Tom Silverman and what she calls a new wave of "enlightened Young Turk" male executives for recognizing talent, but finds much that troubles her in the record business.
"Unfortunately there are still some male captains of industry out there obsessed with the big d--- theory," she says. "Everything those good old boys believe about themselves revolves around how much money and power they can accumulate.
"Some of these guys don't care about what's good for the music or the business and they have no intention of ever broadening their ranks to include talented women and minorities unless pressured to do so. They're so out of touch it's pathetic."
Female employees also complain about sexist double standards, insisting that physical good looks are a more important factor in the hiring of women than men. Some, who surmised that they had been offered their positions partially because they were attractive, said they had come to accept being "ogled" as part of the job.
Paula Batson, senior vice president of public relations for MCA Music Entertainment Group, says the double standard extends to behavior.
"When a guy in this business acts aggressive, people view it as a positive manly trait," Batson says. "But when a woman acts decisive, she's often characterized as a bitch. There are still men who refuse to view women as anything but passive. They have a difficult time accepting the fact that we are strong and intelligent and can be formidable adversaries."
Women aren't the only ones who perceive sexism as an ongoing problem. Some of the most powerful male executives in the business agree.
"I'm not even sure sexism is the word I would use to describe it," says Alain Levy, chief executive officer of PolyGram International. "I would call it ignorance. Stupid, myopic ignorance. I'm just about to appoint a woman to the No. 1 position at one of our European companies and I'm especially concerned about whether the artists over here will be able to deal with it or not.
"We're going forward with it, but I really do wonder what's going to happen when some macho Latin lover has to have a serious business discussion with a woman executive."
N ov. 14, 1991.
That's the day that shook the record industry.
One month after Anita Hill testified against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a 28-year-old secretary filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in a Santa Monica County court against Geffen Records and its parent corporations, claiming they had tolerated "outrageous sexually deviant behavior" by a top executive for years.
Suing the company for assault, battery and sexual harassment, Penny Muck claimed that her boss, the former general manager of Geffen's DGC label, had repeatedly harassed her, including masturbating at her desk. She also charged that Geffen executives had overlooked a long history of complaints against the executive by other women staff. The company and her former boss, who resigned, declined to comment on the allegations.
"Sex offenders have to understand that they are not above reproach," Muck said in an interview. "People are beginning to speak out more now against sexist behavior."
The Muck case--first reported in The Times in a Nov. 3, 1991 article disclosing that charges of sexual misconduct had been lodged against several top recording executives--prompted an industrywide debate and closed-door boardroom discussions on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the music business and how to deal with it.
Legal departments at record companies in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville swiftly issued internal statements of their sexual harassment policies--most of which were based on government guidelines that define sexual harassment as "deliberate or repeated unsolicited verbal comments, gestures or physical contact of a sexual nature which are unwelcome."
Some executives quickly initiated awareness seminars after tuning into a study by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection board that speculated that sexual harassment can cost companies millions of dollars each year due to loss of productivity, lowered morale, absence from work and job turnover.
Any company that harbored doubts about the seriousness of the issue on the day Muck filed her suit got the message a year later when Geffen Records settled the case for an estimated $500,000. An additional sexual harassment case against Geffen Records is still pending, as is a similar lawsuit against Warner Bros. Records in Nashville.
While some observers cite the recent re-emergence of alleged harassers at key posts as a bad sign that the good old boy network is still thriving, most women interviewed believe that attitudes toward harassment have improved dramatically.
Indeed, mandatory management awareness seminars are now standard fare at most major record companies and written policies are posted in some work areas. Further evidence of change, they say, is that in two recent cases, alleged sexual harassers were terminated swiftly after quick investigations.
"I feel that sexual harassment is really disgusting," says Atlantic Records Chairman Doug Morris, who terminated a male employee three months ago for making lewd remarks to a secretary. "I will not tolerate harassment of any person working at our company and since women are the most obvious targets of harassment in this society, I believe we have a duty to protect them."
It's ironic that the multinational conglomerates--the forces accused of depersonalizing the record business--are now being hailed by observers as the primary agents for helping to liberate women at record companies.
Pay parity for women began to improve shortly after Bertelsmann, Philips, Matsushita, Time Warner, Sony and Thorn-EMI began their industry takeover in the late-'80s. In addition, scores of women were named to high-profile jobs in promotion, artist and repertoire, marketing and legal departments--areas that once were the exclusive domain of men.
Statistics furnished by the six major record companies suggest that power has shifted dramatically in recent years, with 25% of the 670 executive posts of vice president and above in the industry now being occupied by women.
That's more than eight times the number of women in comparable jobs at Fortune 500 companies, according to a 1991 study by the Fund for the Feminist Majority, a nonprofit Los Angeles research center.
But Peg Yorkin, chair of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, cautions industry leaders not to pop the cork on the champagne yet.
"I don't think anyone ought to start patting themselves on the back at this point," Yorkin says. "After all, women make up 53% of the population, not 25%. Until women achieve total parity, we are still the underdogs."
Yorkin and other observers say the statistic to keep an eye on is not how many women have risen to vice president status, but the percentage who have surpassed it. In the music industry, only 3% of the most senior positions are held by women.
Conglomerate chiefs concede that the industry has historically neglected to groom women to run companies but say they are now making concerted efforts to address the shortage of top level female executives.
"This business has been accused of sexism for a long time and perhaps some of that is deserved," says Al Teller, chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment Group. "But I really believe that it's an issue of the past, not an issue of the future."
Warner Music initiated an affirmative action hiring policy in 1990 at the insistence of company chair Morgado, who pioneered similar government reforms in the '70s as former chief of staff to New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey.
Jim Fifield, president and chief executive officer of EMI Music, says his company has initiated an annual management review system to allow female employees who contribute directly to the bottom line to advance more quickly.
"It's important to ensure that individuals in a company are given the right assignments so that when the time comes they'll be qualified to be president of a record label," says Fifield.
Sony Music Entertainment Chairman Michael P. Schulhof echoed that sentiment: "Our objective is to nurture talented managers not good ol' boy clubs."
Is it just concern about image that is forcing companies to move women up the corporate ladder? Most people in the industry, as well as critics of the record business, say no.
After ignoring the contributions of women for decades, conglomerate chiefs insist they're eager to capitalize on competitively unique qualities that women frequently bring to the table: sensitivity, and what Rhone calls "intuition and an innate ability to nurture."
"Women are superior in dealing with the ego," says Michael Dornemann, chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann Music Group, currently shopping for someone to run his North American division. "They're much more sensitive to the needs of others."
Liberty Records chief Jimmy Bowen--the man credited with putting strong women in top positions at each major label in Nashville--claims female executives work harder, hold fewer grudges and seem to be more focused on helping the company achieve success rather than basking in personal glories.
The bottom-line-driven international conglomerates are also beginning to pay closer attention to the buying power of female consumers--which make up more than half their potential customer base.
"It seems to me that if you want to understand and appeal to female consumers that the intelligent way to approach it is to hire more women to run your company," Bowen says. "Personally, I wish the macho guys complaining about how bad business is would just move on over and let some more of these talented women step in and try their hand."
Already, women have begun to rise to the top in other music-related fields such as cable television, entertainment law and management, helping to orchestrate the careers of artists as diverse as Ice Cube, Janet Jackson and last year's bestseller Garth Brooks.
"Professional people should be appreciated for what they accomplish not for what gender they are," says Trudy Green, who manages Janet Jackson and Mick Jagger. "I can't wait till the day when we stop whining about men and women and start talking about people."