Over half of artists as a whole in Canada are female, but only slightly more than a third of all conductors, composers and arrangers are women – a problem that seems especially apparent in classical music. Although masculine bias in classical music is as old as the industry itself,there are efforts to represent more women in this category today.

A 2016 report by Hill Strategies outlines a statistical profile of Canadian artists. According to the report, women account for 53 per cent of all artists, including authors and writers, dancers, musicians and singers, and actors and comedians. But that number drops to 37 per cent among those conducting, composing and arranging music.

The low numbers of female conductors, composers and arrangers come as no surprise to associate professor and director of music at Western Sydney University, Sally Macarthur. She co-authored a study that appeared in the British Journal of Music Education in 2018. The article notes that a career in music composition typically requires a specialized higher education. Among the factors driving women away from this specialization are a shortage of female instructors and role models, as well as the low representation of women’s music in research.

Macarthur has even seen such problems at her own university, which is a world leader in addressing gender discrimination. For example, she was startled to find only 18 percent of the listening examples provided to music students at Western Sydney were produced by women.

“When I actually started to look at it, I thought, ‘nothing’s changed,’” says Macarthur. “There’s no awareness of it – it’s basically a habit where people just reach for the thing they know, and they’re going to teach it.”

Force of habit isn’t just an issue in music education, however. It also plays a part in performance. 

Jennifer MacDonald, director of artistic operations for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, has a big hand in overseeing the planning and production of concerts put on by the orchestra.

She notes one of the main factors concerning the low representation of music composed by women (research by Donne estimates this number to be 3.6 per cent for the 2019-2020 season) is that a large chunk of the works performed in concerts are from historical periods dominated by males such as Beethoven, Mozart, J.S. Bach and Brahms.

Only 18 per cent of music examples given to music students at Western Sydney University are composed by female musicians. Photo by Miss Vine from Pixabay.  

Macdonald acknowledges it can be a challenge to represent women with such a reliance on pieces from this historical period.

“For institutionalized reasons, they’re composed or performed by men,” she explains. “During that time there were probably lots of capable women that were just not given the opportunity to become the top composers of the day.”

The success of female composers

Despite the historical dominance of males in this field, there are some women who have been able to carve out successful careers in composition.

Tawnie Olson studied music for many years and holds a doctorate in music composition from the University of Toronto, a bachelor of music degree from the University of Calgary and a master of music degree and artist diploma from Yale.

Throughout her career she has composed many pieces that have been performed at venues across five continents.

Olson says she had a great supporting cast during her studies and was fortunate to avoid discrimination or a sense of hostility towards her during her studies. She knows that this isn’t the case for many women, however.

“I mentored a young woman recently, and she mentioned that after a concert recently an older man composer came up to her and said to her, ‘Maybe I should get a sex change and then my career would take off too,’” she explains.

Olson states how those were the types of comments that she used to receive back in college.

“I was so mad when I heard about that, because… I put up with that kind of thing and it should be over by now.

After finishing her education and entering the industry, her eyes were opened to just how male-dominated its history has been.

The classical music industry is run mostly by men, making for an environment that can at times be hostile towards women. Photo by Pexels from Pixabay. 

“As I continued my career, I discovered, sexism is alive and well and living in the new music world,” Olson says.

This discovery changed her way of seeing things. As a result, Olson is still quite worried about how sexism might affect the upcoming generation interested in pursuing their career, due to people’s closed-mindedness when acknowledging female composers.

 “There’s definitely a mixture of well-intentioned people with unconscious bias, people with bad intentions, and people who are good-intentioned who are actually willing to confront their bias.”

That bias also influences the kind of music played at concerts – which Olson noticed often only showcase male pieces.

For example, in the 2018-19 orchestral season, the Calgary Philharmonic performed masterworks for 10 weeks, which mainly included pieces by male icons such as Beethoven and Brahms.

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we have a lot of women conductors and composers involved in our performances,’ I’d rather just make it part of the norm.”

Those pieces are mostly conducted by the music director, Rune Bergmann. There are, however, a few spots available for guest conductors. Of the three spots that were offered for that season, two were given to women.

“This is our central offering, and it wasn’t even that we were trying to [appoint women]. It just happened that way,” says Macdonald. “I was thinking about it after the fact and thought ‘Oh, that’s actually kind of cool.’”

Macdonald also hopes for a day where the habit is equal representation.

“It’s important to show, not tell,” she says. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we have a lot of women conductors and composers involved in our performances,’ I’d rather just make it part of the norm.”

The future for women in classical music

In order to make women in music the norm, Macarthur states it’s important for orchestras to focus on employing more women in conducting positions. She says that perhaps quotas could be put in place to achieve this, helping ensure that aspiring female musicians will have role models to look up to.

More important, however, is teaching women the business of music while still in school, says Macarthur.

Making sure they’re adequately prepared to network with others, promote their own work and market themselves can help ensure that women are given the best opportunity to succeed when they enter the field.

“It’s the madness of the competitive world we all inhabit. Everyone is after the prize and after the performance. They want to be famous or noticed as composers. There’s this huge competition for getting your work performed,” Macarthur mentions.

“Men seem to have it all sewn up. If they’re trying to set up something with a performance group, they likely already have a relationship established with them. But women find it hard to establish the relationship in the first place.”

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Edited by: Kaeliegh Allan | kallan@cjournal.ca