March 07, 2022

International Women’s Day 2022: the pipe band world isn’t there yet

By Lynda Mackay

Editor’s note: pipes|drums has covered women and girls in piping and drumming as an advocate for fair and equitable inclusion. For International Women’s Day 2022, we asked prominent Hamilton, Ontario-based piper Lynda Mackay for her thoughts. We are grateful for her contribution to the conversation.

To put some context to this article, the campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “BreakTheBias”:

Imagine a gender equal world.
A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
Together we can forge women’s equality.
Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.

I’ve been pretty lucky in my life. I was raised with supportive parents and no real challenges with equality that come rushing to mind. That’s not to say there weren’t any, but I think in the big picture, I’ve had it pretty good.

Lynda Mackay, right, with her niece, Drew, comparing notes at a games in Ontario. Drew Mackay is a rising star on the Ontario circuit.

As a young girl, of course I was subjected to the concerns parents have when comparing their sons and daughters. Even though my brothers were younger, more attention was placed on what my sister and I were up to, or who we were out with, versus my brothers out throwing parties, crashing head first into the sidewalk while rollerblading, running on the pool deck and breaking a collar bone, crashing the car…you get it.

Outside of the usual parental concerns and unconscious biases growing up, I was never told that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I played baseball, took judo classes, learned the drums and of course the bagpipes. This meant weeks into years surrounded by adults (mostly male) at band practices, late night Burns nights, Highland games beer tents and band trips around the world. These were not average environments for a young girl, given the lack of female representation in pipe bands. However, it was the world I grew up in.

Throughout those years, I worked my way into positions of authority in pipe bands, and as a young woman, I could see some of the older men weren’t quite as comfortable listening to a young girl make the rules. It’s important to note that there were always more men who appreciated that I was capable of doing the job and didn’t care that I was female. Over time, it became easier for me, surrounded by so many adult men waiting for my “quick march!”

A common theme promoted by women hockey players today is, “If you see it, you can be it.” That is the environment I grew up in. One of my first piping teachers, and the most influential person in my piping career was Gail Brown. A pioneer of female pipers and pipe-majors. I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t farfetched for me to want to lead a pipe band when that was what I was used to seeing. It wasn’t a common occurrence around the world at the time, but it was natural for me to think nothing of it.

When it comes to equality in pipe bands, the most frustrating part for me was when my pipe band showed up to an event or function and the event organizer would walk up to the biggest, oldest man, assuming they were in charge. I would have to go up to them and introduce myself as the pipe major, typically receiving a look of surprise and a quick apology. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just asked, “Who’s in charge here?” rather than assume it is the man.

I love seeing the increasing numbers of female pipers and drummers around the world doing what they love. Less and less is the pipe band a man’s world. We are musicians. Simple as that.

I’ve gotten a good laugh out of tourists coming up to me asking if I’m the Highland dancer, while teaching piping and drumming at the College of Piping in Prince Edward Island. Not that I have a problem with that, but I can’t say I’ve ever looked like much of a dancer! It’s just that natural bias that exists in the world. That’s something that needs to change. I think it’s certainly getting better, but we’re not there yet.

One of my favourite parts of being a judge in today’s pipe band world, is hearing that another young female looks up to you, or is inspired by you. We need more of that, and more females out there doing what they want to do, whether it’s in pipe bands or a work environment. I love seeing the increasing numbers of female pipers and drummers around the world doing what they love. Less and less is the pipe band a man’s world. We are musicians. Simple as that.

Something that sticks with me in solo competition is when I entered a professional contest, played quite well but didn’t receive a prize. Someone came up to me and said, “I think you should have been in the prizes but that judge doesn’t like female pipers.” That really bothered me at the time, but you move on knowing that that way of thinking is rare. Even more rare these days.

Piping runs strong in the Mackay family. Third generation Mackay pipers Gavin and Drew celebrate their 2015 Champion Supreme awards at the PPBSO’s annual gala with their aunt Lynda. Gavin now competes in the Professional grade, and Drew is a Grade 1 amateur competitor.

I look at the talent out there in piping and drumming and I can see the levels of comfort and confidence from females out there competing alongside their male counterparts. No longer is it just one or two females in the contest, sometimes it’s actually 50/50. It’s fantastic! I think of my niece, Drew, out there competing alongside her brother, Gavin, and they are just talented players. I’d like to think that having Drew know her aunts were out there playing and competing added a bit more interest or comfort in wanting play.

In saying that, it can’t be a coincidence that a band led by someone like Gail Brown just so happened to have a higher number of female pipers in the ranks. To be honest, there was a time that this band had most of the females out competing at the time compared with a male-led top band that my sister and I played in which there were only three females.

We need more women leading pipe bands; we need more women leading drum corps; we need more males playing tenor drum.

When I started the Strathnaver Pipe Band years ago, it was easier to attract more female players because we already had a good ratio of males to females. This shows that we need more women leading pipe bands; we need more women leading drum corps; we need more males playing tenor drum. I could go on and on.

I’ll be honest, in starting to write this article, I started to confuse sexism, biases and equality. It seems to me that at times, one stems from the other, and the lines between them often cross.

I’d like to think that we will eventually get to a point where these biases won’t be so prevalent, but there will always be roles where men are better suited or women are better suited. Sometimes it isn’t about equality, or that one gender is superior to the other, it’s just how it is.

But, if there is a role that isn’t impacted by someone’s size or strength, then it shouldn’t matter whether a man suits up or a woman suits up. The most qualified person should wear the suit, and get paid based on the position.

We are on the way in the pipe band world, but we’re not there yet.

Lynda Mackay has been playing the pipes for more than 30 years at all levels of both solo and pipe band competition. She is a certified piping and pipe band judge with the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario. Also a skilled snare drummer, she worked as the primary piping and snare teacher at the College of Piping & Celtic Performing Arts in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and has taught privately for more than 25 years. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and works with the city as Supervisor of Stadium Operations at Tim Hortons Field.

What do you think? Feel free to submit your thoughts using our comments feature below.



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