Classical Sexism: Gender Bias and Female Conductors

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"Conductor" by Rob Swystun is licensed under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)Sun Media Photo/Rob Swystun/Daily Graphic/16/12/08 Rei Hotoda conducts the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at the William Glesby Centre in Portage la Prairie Tuesday as part of The Power Smart Holiday Express Tour 2008. Portagers filled the Glesby to see and hear the orchestra, which completely filled the stage at the performing arts centre.

Classical music has a long legacy of sexism, and the most evident reminder is often standing right in front of the orchestra. I’ve stared at this inequality for most of my own musical career. In twelve years, I’ve worked with only one professional female conductor, but countless males. And even in the world of instrumentalists, equality can be hard to see. I remember being in middle school band, shocked that there wasn’t a single boy in the flute section, but all the professionals my teachers told me to listen to were men.

What I have observed in my own musical experience is a global epidemic. In a recent survey of British artist signers representing at least five conductors, 95% of those represented conductors were men. A major orchestra’s web page showed 27 upcoming male guest conductors and no female conductors. These are two statistics presented by James Murphy, the managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia. He presented a brief video on the issue for the Association of British Orchestras, which, incidentally, has offered only four of over 100 titled conducting positions to women across 61 orchestras. The lack of visibility for female conductors is most discouraging for the upcoming generation of female musicians. Murphy and accomplished American conductor Marin Alsop both argue for the importance of having visible role models, which can be hard to find for young women.

In 2013, the plight of female conductors was widely publicized when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the BBC Proms Closing Concert. Though her accomplishment was considered a breakthrough and seen as a glass ceiling shattered, so much remains to be done. Indeed, the same week as Alsop’s Proms performance, another well-known conductor, Vasily Petrenko, said that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” This kind of inexcusable comment is all too common. And demeaning remarks are only a part of the problem — women in classical music lack basic exposure. In 2015, composer Judith Bingham said she tried to keep track of how many classical pieces a radio station played, and came up with less than one a week.

Since Alsop’s Proms success, female conductors have been afforded more opportunities, such as Morley College’s program for aspiring women conductors. The workshop-style course has grown since its founding in 2014, and is offered across the United Kingdom. The Women Conductors Program “seeks eventually to eliminate any remark about whether a conductor is a man or a woman so that conductors are judged on their talent alone,” echoing Alsop’s own views.

The problem is ultimately systemic, which does not make it excusable. Women’s contributions to the music world have been largely ignored longer than we can identify, but certainly a few notable cases come to mind; Mozart’s sister was also an incredibly talented pianist, and both Schumann’s wife and Felix Mendelssohn’s sister were talented composers prevented from pursuing their arts.  

“We all want a society in which we don’t have to think or talk any more in terms of male or female conductors,” argues Murphy, “but this won’t just magically happen. Nobody else is going to do it for us.” He’s careful to say in his video that he’s also struggled with the implicit bias, as does much of the industry. Murphy’s intentions are good, but it’s another problem when a male managing director has to tell the British classical music industry that hiring women would be good business practice, and that it’s largely important to keep up with the times.

Of course, the problematic gender bias in Western classical music is a symptom of the sexism that has defined Western society for many hundreds of years. Much of conducting involves leadership qualities that have been traditionally perceived as masculine, and women who take on these qualities are not respected in the same way that a man might have been. Alsop puts a finer point on it: Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off-putting, whereas it’s desirous for men.”

Little by little, the bias against women in classical music is changing. Thirty years ago, no woman had conducted for the BBC Proms, and today, more than half of the professional flute soloists I’ve met and worked with in my college career have been women. However, complacency is unacceptable, and it’s important to acknowledge that this article presents only one small facet of the greater issue of sexism at large. For example, I did not provide statistics on women of color in the Western classical world, nor did I consider other kinds of music outside symphonic classical music. Ultimately, one female conductor is not “good enough” to have suddenly achieved equity in the musical profession, and until a woman can be a conductor without being a “woman conductor,” we have not done enough.  

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