Women get just 21% of classical commissions and 14% of PhDs

Women get just 21% of classical commissions and 14% of PhDs


norman lebrecht

May 16, 2016

A survey by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) has revealed huge gender and race inequalities in the granting of music commissions and degrees.

The survey, conducted by Natalie Bleicher , is based on works submitted to the 2015 British Composer Awards.

It shows that:

only 6% of commissioned composers are Black or Minority Ethnic (BAME), against their 14% share of the UK population;

just 21% of commissioned composers are female;

The percentage of women decreases at each level of study –

While 39% of Bachelor’s degrees are won by women, only 14% of PhDs are female.

Full results will be published in Basca’s house magazine later this month.

Kaija Saariaho



  • Bruce says:

    I’d be curious to know what the percentages are when it comes to commissions awarded vs applied for. Is it a question of females being unfairly denied commissions, or is it a case of not as many females applying? Etc. etc.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ….. indeed. The parameters are too vague. Then there is the quite important factor of modernism: given its nature, it can be assumed that it is less attractive a musical paradigm for women who are biologically better attuned to life forms, having to give birth at one stage or another – in short: have better talents for human relationships. Also, since a majority of men are more prone to violence than women, modernism’s aggression may be more attractive to men for that reason (apart from Olga Neuwirth). And the a priori discouragement for women reading the requirements on the application form and the prospect to be judged by men, may be a factor. And the perspective to have to write modern music for the modern world, may be less fun for women if compared to other things life can offer.

      Last but not least: the factor of grave neurosis which is a requirement to write a piece which wholeheartedly answers the established expectations of new music, if the piece is meant for the new music scene, may be a serious hindrance for applying. Men aplying for a new music commission are in almost all cases already neurotic; with women, peer pressure and a strong dosis of feminist idealism are necessary to first get neurotic at all, and along the way there are more options to choose something less unhealthy. Historically, women have more different options for being neurotic, while the range for neurotic obsession for men is considerably more narrow. Sonic art offers for men the best possible ventilation and expression of selfhood.

      • Susan says:

        I’ve read some extraordinary rubbish in my time but this really does take the iced vovo. If John Borstlap is describing the genetic make-up of his own music, no wonder it is so profoundly neglected.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Iced Vo Vo!! Love it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          ….. and then there is, of course, the general female lack of sense of irony, which may discourage them from filling-in the application forms.

        • jaypee says:

          But did you expect anything else from our self appointed arbiter of good taste?

        • John Borstlap says:

          As Mr B’s PA I feel I have to intervene here…. It’s mainly our staff here that’s ignoring his stuff (our tastes are different but of course we don’t tell), but outside the gate there actually is lots of interest lately. We can’t figure out why, and replenish our strong feeling of connection with the modern world by listening every wednesday evening when we may finish early, to Xenakis and Stockhausen in the cellar. As Maud, the new cook, so often says: why do we have to revive those old things? She is an expert on 18C french cooking, though, but she says that’s different, old recipes are closely adhered to and not fiddled with as mr B does.

  • Anon says:

    Hopefully the analysis in the magazine will give us a set of good, relevant comparisons.
    6% commissioned BME against 14% population share isn’t a hugely relevant comparison – what is the %age against those applied for, or even just against BME %age of composers?

    Same goes for all the others. For commissions subject to application, what is the %age of female composers applying in the first place vs those awarded? For qualifications, what %age of female composers apply for, or study on, relevant courses?

  • Steven Holloway says:

    Seventy-nine percent of composers are male, it seems, but what we need to know here is what % of the males are commissioned. Similarly, what % of the 86% who are not BAME are commissioned? RE degrees, do these figures represent % of degrees in total, or just of music degrees? Whichever is the case, it doesn’t mean much unless we know why only 14% of Ph.D.s are women — are they in some way barred from doctoral programmes or do they not choose to take that route? But in any case, I find that figure less than credible. Earlier commenters have raised other questions, and in toto, I find all these figures in isolation really tell us nothing significant and cannot without answers to these questions. But perhaps the worst aspect of this study is that it is not a survey of a form that would be given credence by social scientists. It is, rather, just a breakdown of the contestants for one award in one year, a far from random sample. That might well, e.g., explain the very surprising degree numbers.

  • Holly Golightly says:

    It’s comforting to know that decisions about commissions should be made on the basis of race, gender, sexuality and not talent. That way we’ll all see that the spread of talent is actually very very uniform across all the social spectrum. I’m eager to hear the composition of a one-legged Ghanian transgender.

  • Anon says:

    Any 1st semester statistics student would know, that it is impossible to conclude discrimination based on gender, race etc. on the given numbers alone, yet here we are again…
    Either the activists are quite unintelligent, or of mean intentions, or both. The intellectuall dishonesty hurts.

  • pooroperaman says:

    Who cares? The important thing is that the best people are being commissioned. If they all turn out to be male, so what?

  • Eric says:

    Maybe more women than men realize that a British Composer Award doesn’t really mean anything in terms of career advancement…

    • John Borstlap says:

      The question is, WHERE a composer wants to advance his / her / its career. In the new music scene? It’s there where the commissions are plus performances, but for a minor audience who – however – know exactly what you are doing. For the central performance culture? Commissions there are scarce, as are performances, but the luxury to be played by symphony orchestras is a greatly tempting factor. Alas, the audiences there have no idea what you are doing or trying to pull-off unless you try to meet aesthetic standards reigning in that culture, plus being sandwiched between dead white males who are still much more popular than you could possibly become and with whom the audience will negatively judge your piece – in short: lots of seduction and a mountain of obstacles, a situation which easily compares with marriage, so no wonder women often prefer not to burn their fingers, pencils and mouse.

  • Judy says:

    This is all meaningless without a scientific context. I hope that there is something more substantive when the results are published. On one hand, for example, women generally may favor performance over composition because of genetic traits related to social interactions that are more often associated with women or because of the structure of their time. Or genetic traits that favor composition skills may be more often associated with other traits common in male minds, such as a talent with spatial relationships. No one says that both sexes can’t be great in composition, but the genetics may favor certain preferences. Simple, bald statistics don’t tell us anything useful.