Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

A View from Germany: Classical Music is so Sexist

by Liane Curtis - July 30th, 2018

Inge Kloepfer‘s striking article “So sexistisch ist die Klassik  — Classical Music is So Sexist” appeared on June 13, 2018 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  We wanted English-speaking readers to be able to read this important journalism, so we asked Elizabeth Osman to translate it for us, and then I polished her translation.  Thank you to Inge Kloepfer for permission.   (Liane Curtis)

(this image appeared in the E-paper version of the article)


“If enough castrati were available, women would not even have roles as singers: in the classical music establishment, the obstinate patterns of perceptions maintain that feminine can be merely the muse, while genius is only masculine.”


The Berlin Philharmonic program for the upcoming concert season is outdated – to an extent that you wouldn’t think possible in 2018. Because the next season will be predominantly enacted by men. Women are almost only allowed on the big stage of the Berlin Philharmonic as singers. Because the music scene no longer has Castrati for the high voices, and not everything can be done with Countertenors, the strictly conservative program writers cannot ignore Sopranos.

But that is not all: not once does a female conductor stand at the podium of the [Berlin] Philharmonic [in this season].  Also, new music composed by women is almost never played. Of all things, for the Berlin Philharmonic, which makes such a big fuss of their role in youth development, one would expect otherwise, especially since they have had Andrea Zietzschmann as the (female) artistic director for the past eight months.

This top operation of German classics is no exception. The Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg) is only a bit more modern and forward looking. We, the audience who are inclined to the classics, are still predominantly entertained by men in the large concert halls. And we can hardly stand it.  “There is a need for progress, especially in the area of female conductors and composers” admitted Director Zietzschmann. But it does not appear that anything  is happening with them.  At least she promises that “in the season after next, female soloists will play a larger role.” Numerically, women remain accessory parts to this day in the top classical music scene, [and even that role is] not guaranteed to them. This discrimination is systematic – it is part of a deeply rooted and rarely acknowledged set of beliefs and practices.

It has already been a year and a half since the survey by the German Cultural Council. The result of the analysis of the past twenty years showed one thing above all for the world of classical music: it has a sexism problem. And it cannot get it under control.  Olaf Zimmermann, President of the Cultural Council, says “patriarchal structures have become deeply entrenched in the pattern of artistic work.” The male genius cult had never been challenged. And it will not be even today. Men are still the geniuses, women still the muses. The artistic leaders have been reassuring the public for years that a lot has already been done, that progress has been made. Statistically, that is false.  The classical world had made more progress, more than a hundred years ago. For example, in the 1908-09 season in Vienna, almost 40 percent of the official soloists or chamber musicians were women. It was after that the women disappeared from the main stages.

The directors regard the women question as obsolete, at least for soloists, and claim that equality prevails here. But once again, the numbers show this is also not true: one only needs to count the concert programs. And female conductors are not good enough (it is claimed) for the big stages. “Unfortunately, the number of female conductors is much less than the number of male conductors, and so the selection is limited,” said Zietzschmann.

This is not plausible: for 25 years, more women have studied singing and instrumental music than men. For 15 years, 40 percent of the conductors and 30 percent of the composer classes have been female. Assuming a normal distribution of talent, the degree programs should produce in percentage terms just as many excellent, mediocre, and bad female musicians as male musicians. But on the biggest stages this is not the case – we see only a very few female superstars like Martha Argerich, Barbara Hannigan, Hélène Grimaud, or Yuja Wang. Natural distribution laws apparently do not apply here. Why?

The American neuro-scientist, Vivienne Ming, has been researching this very phenomenon [the prejudice that is discussed in the previous paragraph] for years, though not in the field of fine arts, but in rather in economics. Not without reason does she elevate the issue to the level of human cognition; after all, she has determined that the male or female first name of a start-up founder determines the chances of receiving financing. Our brain, she explains, is lazy when it has to make a decision. When an investor has mostly encountered male engineers, then his brain will resort to this usual assessment of business model and will tend to judge the men’s models positively. The women simply lose the game due to these bad statistics. In other words, people – men and women alike — are prejudiced, and they are most often not aware of it.

A whole novel about this cognitive phenomenon was written by American bestselling author Siri Hustvedt, called The Blazing World. It deals with an artistically talented but unsuccessful gallery owner’s wife, who decides (after the death of her husband) to restart her career as an artist with the help of three men. Behind their masks, the perception of her art changes 180 degrees. There is, Hustvedt said, a perceptual reality: art is assessed very differently depending on whether a male or female name stands by it. And she knows that countless studies have long since proven that. This perceptual reality is not different in music – it is just that it simply not believed.

The consequences of this bias are significant: If women do not get to the big stage at the same rate proportion as men due to obvious bias, then they will never win the game against the statistics. A perpetual show of this distorted perception is the important Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which is worth 250,000 Euros. In its 45-year history, it has only been given to men – with only one exception: in 2008, Anne-Sophie Mutter. The foundation has brought four women to the Board of Trustees, including Director Zietzschmann and her colleague from the Zurich Tonhalle, Ilona Schmiel. So far (to date), they could not or would not produce any change. At the beginning of May, another man was rewarded and thus removed from the sphere of semi-visibility. The prize went to Beat Furrer, who once sat on the Board of Trustees himself. Women do not have such a situation. “A timidity exists, about being seen to bend to the pressure of quota,” says the Foundation. Every time there are serious, remarkable females competing for the prize. But unfortunately, no women are perceived as having the same level of  accomplishment as  the top level of men. There are other curious arguments, for example, that women who have children would have problems maintaining the quality of their work. Mostly, composers are the target here. “The Board of Trustees retains the absolute right to award the prize according to artistic criteria.”

Maybe they should advertise a highly paid composer competition, in which the submissions are anonymous. Like the curtain for auditions that was introduced in America to eliminate the problem of skin color. The trick revealed something amazing — it brought more women into the orchestra and made the body of sound of the orchestra even better. Not because the women played better, but because fundamental pool of talent was increased greatly.

One cannot measure quality the way that distance is, in meters, says the Viennese music historian, Melanie Unseld. A Beethoven Symphony does not have a value of 80 and one by Mozart 79 or 81. Does a Beat Furrer compose better than the grand Sofia Gubaidulina? Unseld has always addressed these issues of women in music and how they are perceived. “There are mechanisms supporting the belief that the question of quality is gender neutral,” she says. Because it is based on an aesthetic criteria that has been developed for centuries,  in (thought-)structures in which men call all the shots.

“What pieces does a female piano student get to learn?” one can ask.  Only on rare occasions does she learn [music by] Fanny Hensel. And then what will she then learn at the conservatory?

Gender obscures the perception of quality in such a way that more than a few people have adopted the assumption that women cannot conduct. That is the way it has been for decades. What deficits have not been attributed to all female musicians? For example, intonation difficulties and rhythmic insecurity – a death sentence in serious music; or shortcoming in contrapuntal technique, which is a basic prerequisite for composing. In the meantime, the professional niveau is out of reach: women could not conduct male music like that of Bruckner or Stravinsky; or they exude too much sexual energy at the podium – the musicians who had their concentration impaired would, of course, play poorly. It goes without any explanation: women at the podium? “Just not my cup of tea,” said acclaimed Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons a few months ago. Outrage followed, and the poor guy, certainly not a misogynist, backpedaled meekly, then let himself be carried to a very true statement: he just comes from another time. Right – Jansons comes from the world of yesterday – at least in the issue of women.

And he can’t get out of there [the world of the past]. Just as we can’t get out of there, when it comes to the fine arts. Jansons’ brain plays him the same statistical trick with him as ours does, or as anyone’s brain does if we let it: what he sees and has seen are mostly men on the important stages, and therefore it is very clear to him that they can and do play better.  [What he experiences becomes his reality, and what he knows is simply better than what he does not know]

Can that ever change?

Only if the men decide to follow suit with Tonhallen boss Ilona Schmiel: although this coming season offers their audience no female conductor, but certainly comparatively strong female soloists. “The head conductors must, on their part, insist on finding outstanding female conductors and engaging them.” After all, it is also crucial to “who will be discovered and pushed by whom.” Alexander Steinbeis, director of the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin for more than a decade, which shares the Scharoun building with the Berlin Philharmonic, will feature three female conductors in addition to several female soloists on the big stage. “I would like to have more,” he says, especially those who have an excellent reputation and a lot of experience on the big stages. But how are there ever going to be more, if so few famous orchestras are willing to trust them for an evening?” Here is the circular reasoning of the problem [“the cat bites its tail,” is the German expression], that he understands.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters, has initiated another mentoring program for young women in art and culture. The Siemens Foundation now wants to look after women more, she says, and Jansons is now all about young female conductors. The crux of it is: aid support programs nurture the old patterns of perception that women still need help, because they are not good enough. It does not lie with the quality of the female musicians, but that the men in the classical music industry set still the tone. In 2018, women will belong on the conductor’s stand, and they will be rewarded. Their music deserves to be played.

Not promotion, but recognition is the solution – it could be that easy.


NPR on Female Composers At The Symphony (and the lack thereof)

by Liane Curtis - June 20th, 2018

As Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy celebrates the 10th anniversary of our founding, and continues to celebrate the important work of The Women’s Philharmonic, who performed and promoted music by women throughout the 23 years of their existence (1981-2004) we are always happy to hear media attention being given to our central issue, of women composers, and their under-representation in the concert hall.

Thus, we are excited to share this story by NPR’s Tom Huizinga on the scarcity of female composers in classical music programming.  This is a great story, with interview clips and music excerpts from a range of important living female composers.  But I’d like to take issue with Jessie Rosen, President of the League of American Orchestras, for his statement: “If you go back in time, this was not a viable career for a woman to become a composer. And so, you have a canon that, by definition, does not have a lot of women composers in it.”  Huizinga then continues “And so, you end up with tons of Mozart and Beethoven.”

Well, as Jennifer Higdon so aptly puts it “Heck, you know what? Half of humanity is made up of women.” And this has always been the case.  Women have often lacked  education, encouragement, and opportunities — but nevertheless there have ALWAYS been women who found ways around these obstacles and composed music.  And in fact, there were women who where hugely successful in their own time — Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Amy Beach are two very different examples — who were later cut out of history because ignorant people said women back then didn’t write music because they couldn’t have a career doing it.

Moreover, look at the many canonic MALE composers who did NOT make a living a living by composing — from Vivaldi the priest to Charles Ives the insurance executive —  here and here are listicles of more.

The problem is not that there weren’t plenty of women composers, the problem is because “composer” has so long been defined as male, that people therefore find it hard imagine a musical landscape that is different from the one that the grew up with (one enshrined with great men and only men).  As  describes in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen, the classical music world has yet to make a serious effort to dismantle the cult of male genius (update: English translation of the article is here.)



Featured Guest Blogger: Anna Edwards

by sarah - January 27th, 2017

Dr. Anna Edwards, ConductorWe are thrilled to share our newest installment in our Featured Guest Blogger series.  Dr. Anna Edwards is a conductor and educator in the Seattle area.  Two of her ensembles, the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and the Saratoga Orchestra of Whidbey Island, have been recipients of WPA Performance grants.  In addition, she is the music director at Roosevelt High School (Seattle).  She received her Doctorate of Musical Arts in conducting at the University of Washington. Her research is focused on the role of gender and the challenges that women conductors continue to face.  


Gender disparity in music: A commitment and a conversation

It has been a joy to see the advances of so many talented women in our musical culture recently: Elim Chan, first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (2014); Susanna Mälkki, recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Barbara Hannigan, melding the professions of vocal performer and conductor; composers Caroline Shaw (2013) and Julia Wolfe (2015), recent winners of the Pulitzer prize in music, to name just a few. Communities around the globe should regularly see and hear accolades of the diligence and accomplishments of such phenomenal women. This said, the current climate in the US reminds me that we all must be vigilant in keeping the expectations of gender equity on an upward trajectory.

For me, I am committed to focusing my attention into two areas that can and will make a difference in my own community. First, I am dedicated to speaking and advocating for gender equity in leadership positions in the arts – even if it is uncomfortable, difficult, and frustrating. Second, I will continue to program compositions by female composers on each of my concert performances. So far, this has been successful, and my hope is that this will become the norm for other musical ensembles.

It is almost 2017 and I am stunned by Ricky O’Bannon’s article, “The 2014-15 Orchestra Season by the Numbers,” and Sarah Baer’s more recent article, “Works by Women in the 2016 Season.” While O’Bannon states that only 1.8 percent of total pieces performed by the top twenty-one major American orchestras in 2014-2015 were by women composers, Baer states more troublingly that fourteen of our country’s top twenty-one symphony orchestras did not program a single work by a female composer. This is unacceptable. Our culture should expect gender equity and if it is not happening, then we as musicians need to do something about it.

The presidential primaries brought up a LOT of fascinating quandaries concerning gender and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is clear that our culture continues to prefer male leadership (1).  In order to keep our changing society moving forward, we must continue to recognize and address gender bias as women increasingly enter historically masculine leadership positions.

My intention here is to address gender through a musical lens. In Western classical music, men have long dominated the fields of both composition and conducting.  Additionally, until “behind the screen” auditions became the norm starting in the 1970s for American symphony orchestras, men also dominated instrumental positions in those ensembles (Goldin & Rouse, 2000)(2). So, what does this mean and what might we consider as we move towards gender equity?

In my research, “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor,”(3) I found that the lack of female leadership in the symphonic world mirrors precisely the lack of female leadership in the corporate world. Women currently hold 3% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. Similarly, women hold 3% of orchestra conducting positions in the top 52-ranked music conservatories in the world, as well as 4% of music director positions in the top 50 budgeted orchestras in the US. This vast gender disparity in critical teaching positions at the university level and powerful music director positions at the professional level shows that these institutions are not capitalizing on the enormous potential of the female population (which is half of the population).

The purpose of my study was to explain why so few women occupy leadership positions in symphonic conducting and to develop tools that may help women better succeed in this field. I included three components: student interviews from the Pierre Monteux School of Conducting (2012); professional conductor interviews, with both men and women; and surveys of professional symphony musician concerning gendered leadership.

My research can be summarized in these six conclusions:

  1. Women should embrace their gender distinctiveness and tap into positive gender leadership qualities that allow women to portray themselves in a confident and comfortable manner;
  2. Women should understand different types of leadership skills and how these skills are perceived in order to add to their inherent leadership styles;
  3. Women conductors may find their optimal strength concerning confidence in front of an orchestra from a balanced, strong, and centered body with clear visual connections with musicians;
  4. Women must question whether they are being trained adequately;
  5. Women must be cognizant of how they dress, as they will be judged on their appearance;
  6. Finally, professional musicians did not have a gendered preference for conductor after they had the opportunity to work with a female music director. (4)

In a phone interview with the highly regarded conducting pedagogue Gustav Meier, he emphatically stated, “The main thing is that there is no difference between the men conductors and the women conductors. There is no difference.” (5)  Although I believe his heart was in the right place, I respectfully but emphatically disagree. We DO have differences. You can see and hear these differences. You can see our differences by the way we dress, by the gestures we use, by the gender we choose to identify ourselves with. You can hear the differences by the way we talk, by the way we problem solve, and by the way we connect with people.

If women are going to move successfully into the higher echelons of our various musical fields, our culture must provide adequate mentorship for women, so they can thrive as leaders in our field.  Further, our culture must promote women, to become the half of our music industry that has been missing. When this happens, our entire musical profession will benefit.

Let’s talk about perception. A friend of mine, who is concertmaster of a major orchestra, explained gender perception of conductors best. He said, “The biggest difference between a male and a female conductor is how they are going to be perceived. Not necessarily that female conductors tend to do this or male conductors tend to do that. It’s that when they do what they do, it will be perceived differently.” Why is this? Men and women both can be expressive and charismatic conductors, yet research shows us that our perceptions are different for men and women.

In her well-known book, Lean-In, Sheryl Sandberg states, “Success and like-ability are positively correlated for men, but success and like-ability are negatively correlated for women.”  This is an astounding and profound observation! To rephrase, the more successful a man is, the more people like him; but the more successful a woman is, the more people dislike her.

Social scientists have documented this surprising reality in many studies .  For instance, in 2002, Frank Flynn, associate professor from Columbia University’s Business School, tested the idea of gender inequity. Flynn provided the portfolio of a successful business executive to his students and then had them take an on-line survey, to rate their impressions. Half of the class received information for Heidi Roizen, who is an actual venture capitalist business executive based out of Silicon Valley. The other half of the class received the same exact portfolio, with only one small, but incredibly important change. This half of the class received “Howard Roizen’s” portfolio — the same exact portfolio, only the name and the pronouns were changed.

As you might expect, students felt Heidi and Howard were equally competent and effective. What I found fascinating was that students didn’t like Heidi. They wouldn’t hire her. They wouldn’t want to work with her. They disliked her aggressive personality. The more assertive they felt she was – the more harshly they judged her. However, this was NOT true for Howard. Students wanted to work for Howard. They liked Howard because he was a strong leader and he knew how to get things done. The pronouns were significant:  people’s perceptions were noticeably biased based solely on the gender of the subject.

I believe that change will happen when we pay attention to these gender inequities that permeate our culture.  We must become aware, attentive, and honest about what is going on around us, and insist on policies promoting diversity of leadership in top musical organizations and institutions.  These institutions are highly visible and people pay attention to them; thus their governance and artistic leadership have a broader cultural significance.  Their leadership needs to demonstrate that they are aware of the inherent biases of our society, and that working for diversity and equity is the right thing to do.

Business models show us that companies with at least one female in a leadership role significantly outperform organizations without females in these positions. (6) The same holds true for our orchestras.  My research emphasized that the biases against women dissolved once a woman was actually in a leadership position (See Table 1). (7)

These findings strengthen expectation and insistence for greater numbers of women in both our major symphony orchestras and major music universities and conservatories. Gender equity in leadership positions is a healthy and beneficial ideal, which will bring about innovative strategies, and encourage different ways of creative thinking. A professional musician resonates this musical possibility:

When performing with a female or male conductor, I don’t think of them in terms of gender. We’re communicating with each other through music, and that’s the focus of our relationship. It’s an intimacy that is beyond interacting with each other based on gender. It’s like having a close friend from another culture or ethnicity. You don’t think of them in terms of their culture or ethnic background, you think of them in terms of your friendship. You’re beyond thinking of them in simple terms. The complexity and intimacy of a friendship and a musical relationship bring the parties involved to a much higher plane than just gender. Once I get to know someone, they no longer appear to me in those terms or with those labels (Professional musician, Professional Musician Survey). (8)

Each conductor brings his or her musical views, interpretations, gestures, and personalities. With each varying musical personality – new repertoire, interpretations, collaborations, and season programming will evolve.

I leave you with five critical questions:

  1. Could you be gender biased?  Given the structure and history of our society, and the gendered expectations that continue in all walks of life, it is hard not to be.  Sometimes the first step towards healthy change is an honest look inward.
  2. Could these biases getting in the way of what you see and hear in musicians?
  3. Are organizations that you serve (such as musical institutions, workshops, or competitions) providing equal opportunity for all genders?
  4. Are the educational institutions that you are affiliated with providing gender equitable programming?  If not, are you willing to speak up?
  5. How will you best mentor and encourage more women to make a positive difference in our field?

We need to capitalize on what women can offer our industry, but more importantly, we need to recognize and be proactive about why things are taking so long to change. We must be open to encouraging, developing and promoting women to mitigate gender bias. Let’s start the conversation!  


(1) Gallup Poll (2013) – Americans’ Preference for Gender of Boss, 1953-2013
(2) Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “Blind” auditions on female musicians,  American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.
(3) Edwards, A. (2015). Gender and the Symphonic Conductor. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/33213
(4) Edwards, A. (2015). Please see data from musician survey, p. 126-7.
(5) Meier, Gustav. Personal interview. Aug 31, 2014.
(6) McKinsey’s research, Catalyst research, Deloitte Australia research
(7) Edwards, A. (2015) Gender and the Symphonic Conductor. p. 127
(8) Edwards, A. (2015) Gender and the Symphonic Conductor. p. 280



2014 In Review

by sarah - January 7th, 2015

Bachtrack, the online database for concerts happening throughout the world, has published their annual review of 2014.  They looked at all of the ensembles, conductors, composers, and pieces that were included on their website (which collects information from ensembles around the world) and had some insights to the current state of classical music.  You can see the full results here – but, unfortunately, there is no surprise to the current state of women.

As with last year, there were few women included in any of the lists:



As Tom Service, from The Guardian, points out, this is at least some progress over last year.  I couldn’t have said it better:

The statistics provide unarguable evidence that the classical music sector’s repertoire is dominated overwhelmingly by dead white men, and performed by living white men.

I wish this was only a cliché, but even though things have improved in a small way since 2013 – when there was only one single female conductor in the top 100 busiest maestros (this year there are four times as many, but four out of 100 is hardly breaking new ground for gender equality); and if in 2013 there were no women at all in the top 150 most performed composers, at least this year Sofia Gubaidulina claws her way to no. 132 in the list), it’s clear that the institutions of classical music, above all the orchestras and opera houses, are moving at a collectively glacial pace when it comes to equal gender representation.

The total numbers of women, both as conductors and composers, is, in a word, pitiful.  However, it is notable to mention that Clara Schumann made it to the list at all.  And, I would imagine, that the number works by Judith Weir performed in the coming year will increase; the announcement regarding her position as the Master of Queen’s Music came long after most ensembles had their programming for the 2014-2015 season set.

It is also significant to acknowledge the conversations that are happening about women and music, and recognizing the problem in the lack of representation, in British media.  That Bachtrack explores these statistics is itself telling, and there is no ambiguity in Service’s thoughts on the need for better representation.

The Backtrack statistics also give us a look ahead in what to expect for 2015 with regard to the tendency to program in connection to composer anniversaries (2015 is the 150th for Sibelius and Nielsen).  But let’s not forget the women with anniversaries in 2015!  Vítězslava Kaprálová is celebrating 100 years; Josephine Lang and Pamela Harrison are both celebrating 150 years.  But I don’t think I should hold my breath to count the number of Kaprálová remembrances we should anticipate in the 2015 review.