The classical music industry is changing. Admittedly, the pace could generously be described as glacial: according to Donne - Women in Music, in the 2021-22 season, across 111 orchestras in 31 countries, just 7.7% of pieces played were by women, of which 5.5% were white (while 27.5% of pieces were by the same ten historical, white European men).
But this is at least a slight improvement on the previous year, where just 5% of compositions were by women. And out with the big, established orchestras, there are some truly amazing ensembles championing the music of underrepresented composers. Like with any structural change, we first feel it in the fringes; all we can do is amplify and support in whatever way we can, and hope that the mainstream catches on.
Slow progress in representation
So the numbers are still inexcusably low, but even slow progress means that more programmes than ever are containing music written and being conducted by people of marginalised genders and races.
Good news, surely? So I’ve been puzzled by my own reaction to seeing women’s names on my work schedules. Don’t worry, I’m not about to reveal that I’ve actually been a surprise sexist all along. Happy Women’s History Month!
No - what I’ve noticed is that after the initial pleasure of seeing a name that suggests diversity, I’m often left with low-level anxiety, because my next thought is inevitably “oh, I hope they’re good”. Obviously, I always hope that conductors and composers are good, because it makes my job much more fun and fulfilling...but I never find myself thinking this when I see a man’s name.
So why do I only have this thought when I see someone who’s not a man? It’s simple: I know that if the work of a man is sub par, the orchestra might not have the best week, but people ultimately accept that this particular guy just isn’t great at his job, and will get on with it with minimal grumbling (...ok, with some grumbling).
When a woman is represented, she is also representing
I’ve come to realise that others are not yet afforded this luxury. Men get to be individuals. Women get to be women. When a woman is represented, she is also representing. When a woman (more often than not white women – I said the pace was glacial...) is not outstanding at her job, I can feel a difference in the room. I think I’ve developed a spidey sense, but specifically for misogynistic muttering. If I ever want to feel it tingle, I just need to go to a rehearsal of perfectly fine music by a woman.
The muttering may be indistinct at first, but just wait until breaktime (or – even better – an orchestral meeting)! Enjoy the irate orchestra members providing a clean sweep in Misogyny Bingo. Just a few guaranteed phrases include “box-ticking”, “diversity quota”, “positive discrimination”, “lady composer” (my personal favourite actually), and (we’re going to need a bigger bingo card) “it’s actually doing more harm than good to the cause of women composers”.
In these moments, I’ve never found the words to respond to these comments – mainly because I’m taking deep breaths and fantasising about removing myself from society to live on a utopian queer commune – but one day it might be fun to stand on a table and shout the following: WHY, please, on top of having to look young and thin all the time, doing the lion’s share of emotional and domestic labour, and growing our future generations inside our actual bodies – all whilst covering up our slender, hairless ankles on stage – WHY is our output as individuals somehow representative of the output of our entire gender?
“Trying a bit hard”
I reached out to a few friends who are also in the orchestral world to ask about their experiences of similar situations, and I was sad but unsurprised to hear the stories they shared of things they had overheard in and around rehearsals.
Phrases like “trying a bit hard” kept cropping up when talking about female conductors, as well as words like “shrill” to describe their voices. Stories of uproar when a woman’s conducting was unclear, compared to silence the following week when a man was equally ineffective. Comments about the “cause” of women composers being damaged by mediocre compositions.
One friend had noticed that any time there was a woman conducting, orchestra members would invariably discuss their opinions of her as soon as there was a break, but this happened far less frequently for men. All further proof that what is demanded of women before they are accepted is so much greater.
To put it as diplomatically as possible – not all men in high-powered jobs are particularly competent
One of the main reasons for these lingering attitudes is, I think, the delusion that the industry is built on meritocracy. The whining that employing women is all very well, “but only if they’re actually the best candidate” is immediately invalidated when we admit the fairly obvious truth that – to put it as diplomatically as possible – not all men in high-powered jobs are particularly competent.
Clearly, job appointments have sometimes been a product of an “in-crowd” culture, and of those doing the appointing not wanting to feel like they will have their status quo challenged by whomever they select. I would argue that a lot of music we play regularly by men – even a lot of “standard rep” – is not actually the best music in the world. But it’s by a well known white man, so let’s not ever challenge it.
This clinging to the idea of a meritocracy leads to a deep mistrust of anybody that exhibits any kind of diversity being chosen for a position of power – exemplified (unsurprisingly on Twitter) by one of the first comments on an article about the recent appointment of the Berlin Phil’s first ever female concertmaster, which read: “If it wasn’t for the pervasive atmosphere of political correctness, I would simply congratulate her sincerely. But it is what it is, and I ask myself: was she chosen only because of her great artistry, or because she is both a very capable violinist AND a woman.”
Men get to be individuals. Women get to be women
The belief that anybody outside of the patriarchal norm is probably only there at least in part because of positive discrimination results in two very clear trends: firstly, those people are held to much higher levels of criticism and scrutiny; secondly, they are always compared to each other. This serves the patriarchal structure because it keeps the outsiders as outsiders, so while underrepresented people are seen to be being given more space and platforms, they are not yet truly included.
We see this everywhere, not just in music: the first example that springs to my mind was when Theresa May became Prime Minister, and the immediate comparisons to Margaret Thatcher. A journalist for the Evening Standard wondered whether May would be a match for Thatcher (after asking her how many pairs of leopard print shoes she owned, obvs. I liked it when they asked Boris the same thi- oh, wait). But as Rosie Campbell (Politics professor at the University of London) was quoted saying in The Atlantic, “May is nothing like Thatcher. [...] when David Cameron was elected, nobody said ‘it’s the new John Major’”.
Men get to be individuals. Women get to be women. When a woman is represented, she is also representing.
We need to be granted the same grace as our male counterparts
When I came up with the idea for what I was going to write about, I worried that the title would be too glib and that I wouldn’t have enough to say, but as I processed my thoughts I decided to stick with it. There needs to be a seismic shift of attitude within the mainstream, long-established organisations of the classical music industry, otherwise the gradual efforts that are being made to be truly diverse and inclusive will not be successful.
I love my industry, and I long to see more and more people find their connection to it. Women are just beginning to overcome the damage of a long patriarchal narrative, and we’re showing again and again that we are more than capable of doing the same jobs as men.
But we need to be granted the same grace as our male counterparts. We need to be allowed to show up as ourselves without being compared to other women only because we share their gender. We need to be able to express ourselves in the way that we desire without having to worry what society will say about us. We need to be allowed to fail, otherwise there’s no room for creativity or learning. We need to be allowed to have good days and bad days, and for those bad days not to define us or our gender.
So, yes, I hereby launch the campaign for female mediocrity.
This Women’s History Month we've partnered with Her Ensemble - get involed, join the MU x Her Ensemble Panel Discussion
As part of Women’s History Month 2023, members of Her Ensemble will come together to discuss key issues for women and non-binary musicians, exploring topics such as gender, sexuality, race, identity, social media, classism, and how we can make positive progress together. The event takes place online, Friday 31 March at 2:00pm.
Read more and book your place