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 \o7 provocateur \f7 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.