Remarkably, the glass ceiling is alive and well in the world of classical music. Female conductors, composers and directors have a very difficult time breaking into the field. Attitudes within the male hierarchy in the profession as well as formal mechanisms related to who gets hired continue to keep women from reaching the peak of their profession.

The role of women in music

To learn more about the huge gender gap in classical music, we spoke to Katherine Bartol. As a music educator based in Central Pennsylvania, Bartol pioneered the use of the Kodaly method in her region in order to help children learn music in a sequential, systematic and hands-on manner using quality music while listening, singing, playing musical games, moving and performing targeted exercises. Bartol attended West Chester University. She then studied the human voice at the University of Minnesota. She also was a student of conducting at the Westminster Choir College and The University of the Arts.

Bartol also teaches privately and has performed five times at Carnegie Hall with John Rutter.

Throughout her career she has instructed a number of successful and famous musicians in her classes, choir, or in her private studio; including opera singer Elizabeth DeShong, New York City and Broadway performer Nicholas Park, and members of the number one ranking rock band Breaking Benjamin.

The Attitudes Fueling Gender Discrimination

Although the issue of discrimination against women in classical music has been going on for a very long time, it really came to a head in 2013. This is when Marin Alsop, a female conductor and musical director at the Baltimore Symphony lead BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, a high-profile musical event. This event has a history of almost 120 years, yet Alsop was the first female conductor ever chosen to lead. Shortly before Last Night at the Proms that year, Alex Ross of the New Yorker reported on some astoundingly sexist comments that Alsop’s male peers had made about the ability of women to conduct.

Marin Alsop conducting an orchestra
Marin Alsop – photo credit: Wikimedia

One of the male conductors was quoted as saying things to the effect that the influence of female conductors in front of an orchestra was so “distracting” that they were unlikely to get the best performance from the ensemble. Comments from Alsop’s male predecessor at the Baltimore Symphony implied that conductors had to be strong but that women were inherently “weak,” so they would not be the best choice. Statistics show that there indeed is a sexist system that keeps women from reaching the top echelons of the world of classical music. It is likely that such attitudes perpetuate the problem.

To be clear, though, the discrimination against women in classical music is only one of the areas in which Ross and others regard the field as resistant to any type of change or newness.

Examples of Discrimination Against Female Conductors

Out of the 61-member Association of British Orchestras, there are over 100 conductor slots. Only four of those roles were filled by women in 2018.

Jane Glover, in 2013, became only the third female conductor in Metropolitan Opera history. In fact, in one representative year in this past decade, the Met’s 23 conductors who were on rotation were all male. In other opera ensembles, female conductors are labeled as “assistants” and are often only allowed to accompany the orchestra on the piano.

In the same year, a study of the top 20 world orchestras ranked by music critics and published by Gramophone found that there were no female conductors on staff at all!

Examples of Discrimination Against Female Musical Directors

Only seven out of 50 of Canada’s orchestral directors of music are women. In the United States, the larger the orchestra, the less likely a woman is the director. Of the 24 biggest orchestras in the U.S., only one has a woman as a director.

Examples of Discrimination Against Female Composers

When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted a survey of orchestras for their 2015-2016 season, they found that only 1.7 percent of the music that 89 orchestras performed was composed by women. The Metropolitan Opera was found in a study to not have performed any operas composed by women.

Other Examples

The Vienna Philharmonic has few women and only has admitted women into their ranks since 1997. In the Berlin Philharmonic, women are only singers. They have no other roles whatsoever. In American orchestras, about 66 percent of the musicians are male and 33 percent are female. In American orchestras, women only comprise about three percent of brass players.

How the Discrimination is Perpetuated

One may argue that there just simply may not be enough female conductors, composers and musical directors to compete with their male counterparts. This is not the case, says Katherine Bartol. In fact, that argument simply does not make sense, since females comprise 40 percent of the conductor courses and 30 percent of the composer courses in colleges. Women receive 25 percent of the doctoral degrees for conducting.

Instead, the issue relates, in part, to musical management agencies. The orchestras tend to use the management agencies when they need to fill positions. Sadly, females have much more difficulty getting management agencies to help shepherd them into employment. There tends to be about a 20 to one ratio of males to females represented by the typical musical management agency. In fact, a survey in 2018 of British artist managers that represented five or more conductors found that 95 percent or more of these agencies’ conductors were male.

Woman with neon musical instruments

What is Being Done to Reverse the Trend?

London’s Morley College has created a course for women who would like to become conductors. There are now regular meetings at the Southbank Centre to help women network and support each other’s climb. Alsop has been involved in training female conductors at the center.

Orchestras in some areas are hiring by having candidates perform behind a blind, so the hiring committee cannot see the gender of the performer. The latter has helped more women find a spot with orchestras.

In 2014, Elim Chan became the first woman to be awarded the Donatella Flick conducting competition. In 2015, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales chose Xian Zhang as their main guest conductor. In 2016, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra appointed Mirga Grazinyte-Tyle as the musical director. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is now comprised of about an equal number of male and female musicians.

As Katherine Bartol explains, the door for women to reach the hierarchy of classical music has been mostly closed. Sadly, this is one of the few professions that has not received the blessings of the gender equity movement.

Here in 2019, as we reflect upon the events of 2013 that brought this ugly issue to light for the general public, there are stirrings of change, but substantial equity and integration is still in the distance.