Is the glass ceiling getting higher?

Is the glass ceiling getting higher?


norman lebrecht

April 15, 2017

An extensive report from Peter Alexander in Boulder, Colorado, finds that it is much easier for women to get into orchestras than to be accepted as composers.

First the good news: professional orchestras are filled with women today, a vast contrast to 40 or 50 years ago when orchestras were almost entirely male. This is now a viable career for the most talented women instrumentalists.

The bad news is that the picture is not nearly as rosy for women composers, who are not well represented on orchestral programs. And women conductors are no better off than composers.

Read the full article here.


  • Lynn says:

    We do not need more women composers…. We need more talent composers that compose things people WANT to listen to — if more of them are women that’s fine too.

    The majority of classical composers in the past were male. I don’t think we need much of a discussion about why that was. What we need is good music, and the race, colour, creed, gender etc of the person producing it is utterly irrelevant. Going forwards there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be composers too. But it’s not something we should be losing sleep over.

    • me! says:

      people are losing sleep over it because it implies that gender is being taken into account, adversely. Even if most composers are bad now, in your view, there still should be more gender parity – women should not be discouraged from the field as if only men get ahead, and if most everyone was bad and doing music no one wanted to listen to, even then women should be getting a healthy % of the commissions and concerts. Of course, the rare mozart II of any gender would be most welcome (and should be in an environment that encourages them, just like moz.I had)

      • Lynn says:

        It is extremely unlikely that anyone, male or female, will succeed in the field of music composition. And in today’s era of equality in all spheres, except perhaps the long suffering disabled, if there are talented female composers then they will be picked up and endlessly promoted, won’t they?

        This is merely another pointless whinge to make it appear that some axe-grinders are hard done by.

        Don’t you get fed up with them? I know I do.

        • John Borstlap says:

          “It is extremely unlikely that anyone, male or female, will succeed in the field of music composition.” A mysterious remark, given quite some composers who do quite well, and among them a couple who achieve a level of competence comparable with existing canonic repertoire (David Matthews, Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon, just to name a few). ‘Succeeding’ as a composer – what would that mean? And when? (Mahler only ‘really succeeded’ in the sixties, and J.S. Bach only some 100 years posthumously.) So, mere prejudice based upon ignorance.

          Discrimination aside, it is still quite possible that composing meaningful music is more of a male than a female calling, as this is possible for conductors as well. There are professions that are better suited to this or that gender, also when there are exceptions. Since there is something like a gender difference, talents are not ‘distributed’ neutrally and equally. Forcing equality upon fields which are not neutral by themselves, is destructive and counterproductive.

  • Myself! says:

    It seems that most orchestral seasons are programmed around dead composers. How many dead women composers do we know? Not many. Why? We know why, and we are not pleased with the social standards of yore with regards to gender equality. Of the number of active composers alive today who actually make it into an orchestral programming…well, I won’t risk a guess, but it’s likey very very few, of any gender. Anytime we talk about programming, therefore, we are mostly referring to the past (statistically speaking). But thank goodness times have changed, and let’s all build a better future for all of them.

  • Peter Alexander says:

    The full article, if you have read it, explains that there are almost no women composers to choose from, representing the heart of the orchestral repertoire. But I also broke down the statistics, as the Baltimore Symphony has helpfully done, into percentage of ALL repertoire performed and percentage of repertoire by LIVING composers. So for all repertoire, orchestras do about 2% works by women; by living composers they do about 15%. I believe that even 15% is too low, because among living composers women are nearly equal in numbers to men.

    There are many reasons why this might be true, and I am not alleging o er discrimination i most cases. But it is still discomfiting that women who do write good music still have a hard time getting performances.

    As for the suggestion that this is part of an “endless whinge,”what I gave you are the figures, and the figures speak for themselves. Since I’m not a woman, I can hardly be accused of whining about my career. I think that accusation is bogus and it sounds pretty defensive. I know many women conductors, and there is no doubt that some have succeeded very well and are well accepted, but other have been clearly discriminated against—not by other musicians, I should say, but by conservative board members and contributors who want the conductor to adhere to a preconceived image that they are comfortable with.

    • Peter says:

      Could you please cite your source for the claim that the number of professional living female composers is almost 50%?
      Also, how do you come up with the conclusio that the “Numbers speak for themselves”?
      All of what you say is conjecture, imagination. The numbers say nothing like it.
      A cigar is a cigar, not a penis symbol. 😉

      • Peter Alexander says:

        Are you suggesting that the statistics compiled by the Baltimore Symphony are “conjecture, imagination”? Or the figures that I laboriously compiled and added up from local organizations familiar to the majority of my readers? What about the quotes from women composers and conductors, all of which I have on tape? Perhaps your bitter argument is with my sources, not me. I repeat: I am not a woman. I let the women I talked with tell me what they believe the story is. Perhaps you should take up your issues with women composers with women composers.

        • Peter says:

          Nothing to do with the Baltimore statistics. 15% of living composers are female. That’s not debated.
          Do you have a source for your claim, that almost half of professional composers are women, yes or no?

        • Peter says:

          and re your “What about the quotes from women composers and conductors, all of which I have on tape?”

          Did you also equally interview male composers and listen to their stories of failure and rejection? Well, they have no mainstream ideology that would support them and allow them to “blame the system”. Composers, all of them, have a very slim and anecdotal chance to actual professional success.

          Now preconceived perceptions would blame the women’s failure on gender issues. And the male failure? Who can they blame?
          We need to free ourselves from all these ideological blinders and look at the hard facts and the evident reality.

      • Peter Alexander says:

        You wrote: “All of what you say is conjecture, imagination. That is demonstrably untrue, as you have just acknowledged. However, in one specific, your point is well taken. I was casual in my written response, in a way I was careful not to be in the article. I cannot document, but I learned from many different sources that nearly as many women are entering composition as men. That varies greatly from program to program, and the numbers are (of course) particularly high where there are women teaching composition, lower where there are none. But I cannot get data from ASCAP, or from ACA, or from specific graduate programs, partly because of confidentially requirements, so that will have to remain anecdotal, unless you can provide better data.

        I also note that you wrote that to claim that the numbers, such as they are, are only because of discrimination is “intellectually dishonest.” I refer you to my comment above: “There are many reasons why this might be true, and I am not alleging overt discrimination in most cases.” (typos corrected) Nor do I find any quotes in the article that suggest that. Missy Mazzoli says specifically that she would be the last person to know WHY the decisions are made because she is not in the room. So I ask you: where does that allegation come from? I don’t know, and will not speculate about your motivation here.

        I will apologize for my careless implication about numbers of women composers in the field overall. Now please apologize for saying that everything I wrote was conjecture; that it is nonsense; that I claimed that it’s only because of discrimination; because I did none of those things. I feel that are arguing with someone else, or with a straw argument, but not with me, excluding one point.

        What I did was report what women told me. Again, if your argument is with what they said, take it up with them.

        As for your ad hominem attacks on my intellect and ideology, save those for people that you know better than you know me. That neither advances the case you want to make, nor raises the level of debate. Not to mention civility in the world.

  • Peter Alexander says:

    I should add that the Slipped Disc headline is not mine. I did not suggest, nor did the women that I interviewed, that the glass ceiling is getting higher. I think the point is pretty well summarized in the except above: Blind auditions have leveled the playing field for orchestral players; and there seems to be some obstacle still to women composers and conductors. How much depends on who you talk to, but hearing form women in the field is helpful—don’t you agree???

    • Peter says:

      Why application and enrollment rates BYP women for STEM subjects in universities are for many years not rising above 20% despite massive gender specific support programs?
      Why there are almost no female chess players on international Master level?

      Take of the ideological blinders with preconceived results of a “Glass ceiling”. We need an intellectually honest debate.

      • Peter Alexander says:

        My subject was neither STEM fields nor chess. And I never used the term “glass ceiling.” Not once. Stick to the topic.

        • Peter says:

          You said: “and there seems to be some obstacle still to women composers and conductors” but offer no intellectually honest derivation, as to why that would be so.
          Instead the usual irrational conjecture and preconceived ideological nonsense.

          STEM is relevant, as the discussion there is the same nonsense. Fact is, only 20% of applicants in STEM subjects are women. For decades. Despite massive undertakings to change that. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)
          To say that’s only because of discrimination, is again intellectually dishonest.

        • Peter says:

          and to add another real world fact to that evident roughly 20% women interest in STEM subjects:
          In countries with the highest degree of women equality, Scandinavian countries, the number of female applicants in STEM subjects is DROPPING below those 20% and getting lower every year. Norway sees 12% and doesn’t know what to do. Women just don’t feel like studying those subjects, even with all the special support programs around.
          And in countries ranking low on women equality charts, e.g. Iran, the female interest in STEM subjects approaches 50% or is even above that.
          Food for thought…

  • Peter says:

    In my experience the opposite is true. If you are a woman composer, your chances to be performed are significantly higher than for a male composer. In fact today men are discriminated against in the field of composition.
    Agencies, promoters, all are yearning for women in the field.
    Now the real question is: why are there so few women in the field to begin with? Why we never have this debate?
    Or a (somewhat) related debate, why there are so few female chess masters.
    AFAIK there simply are occupations of the mind women in average (!) are not as interested in as men. Which is absolutely fine and their right.
    Which then begs the next question:
    What is actually the problem?

  • norman lebrecht says:

    From Margaret Koscielny:

    How could anybody write an article about women conductors without mentioning Karina Canellakis, who has an impressive resume conducting in this country and in Europe?

    Jacksonville audiences responded to her recent performances with the Symphony with overwhelming enthusiasm. This, from an audience which generally tolerates mediocrity. But, she caused them to spontaneously jump out of their seats at the end of the Shostakovich 15th Symphony, in a response that is rare. They know a good one when they hear it.

    This is an extraordinary musician who will have a great career if any sense prevails.

    She is physically lovely to look at, presents a good figure on the podium, but, more importantly, conducts without an excess of unessential gestures. The orchestra clearly loved working with her, and the audience picked up on that, as well. I was moved to tears, sitting on the edge of my seat.

  • Peter Alexander says:

    I do not doubt Karina’s resume or accomplishments. I wrote about people with ties to my locale, who are known to my readers, some that I know personally, and those who gave me the time to be interviewed. I had a long list of women conductors and composers, I talked to many more than could end up in the article. I appreciate you adding another name to the list, but I cannot in one article mention every worthy woman musician.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I think a distinction should be made between the central performance culture (where symphony orchestras and opera houses determine the field) and the contemporary music scene. The latter is awash with female composers and many of them outdo the male competition in craziness:

    In a (marginal) field where any aesthetic MUSICAL standards have disappeared, and where sonic bursts go bananas, glass ceilings cannot survive, so there is plenty of room for females of all sorts.

  • John McLaughlin Williams says:

    Since we insist upon plowing into this ditch, what are the statistics concerning instrumentalists, composers, and conductors of African descent? Are articles of guilty concern, the wringing of hands, and the establishment of special programs aimed at them imminent? I’m waiting for the bells of redress to tintinnabulate.

  • William Osborne says:

    Thank you for your very helpful article, Peter Alexander. As you’ve probably noticed, many of the comments on SD are not worth responding to. Widely read forums with anonymous respondents are an invitation to ignorance, if not hatred. Don’t waste your time on them.

    Sometimes the light from one little candle lights another. The well-known study entitled “Orchestrating Impartiality,” published in 2000 by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse about blind auditions that is mentioned in your article was motivated by comments about blind auditions I wrote while working to bring women into the Vienna Phil. When Goldin and Rouse were planning the study, Rouse contacted me and said she had been reading my comments about blind auditions. She explained the she and Goldin were economists and thought a statistical study of blind auditions would be interesting. In fact, Goldin was on Clinton’s Board of Economic Advisors, and Rouse later held the same position in the Obama administration. The ripples of the Internet. Keep your candle burning…

    • Peter says:

      Mr. Osborne. Two corrections.

      a.) Anonymous one has to stay, it’s a necessity in these days of the Orwellian spy apparatus the US and its corporations have brought upon us.
      One never knows who is pulling what information during ones lifetime.
      It is actually careless to post under a full name.

      b.) Nobody here disputed the unconditional full equality of women before the law and their right to equal opportunity. You are having Pawlowian reflexes. What is debated is the intellectual dishonesty of conclusions derived from irrational belief systems and preconceived feelings, rather than careful observation and judgment of facts.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    My understanding of the author’s argument is that:

    While 50 percent of living composers are women, only 20 percent of living composers whose work is composed are women. No evidence is provided for the 50 percent figure since the figures explain themselves.

    Women believe themselves to be discriminated against therefor they have been discriminated against. Unsubstantiated claims and “feelings” are facts when it comes to discrimination.

    • Peter says:

      in other words: Fake news. The new facts in the Orwellian reality.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “While 50 percent of living composers are women, only 20 percent of living composers whose work is composed are women.” A quite mysterious sentence. So, there are composers who don’t compose. In the periods between pieces? Or, there are composers who don’t compose but do something else under the name of composer, say someone who composes in his/her free time but has a day job that is very different but which is done ‘as a composer’. The mind boggles.

      In case of “….whose work is performed” is meant: it is impossible to treat the matter statistically, since the motivations of performers selecting a new work by a living composer for performance are multiple, and some of them may be unconscious and/or unintentional. There are so many factors influencing programming choices that it is impossible to draw any conclusions from the number of performances. And where female pieces appear to be a minority, the causes can never fully be discovered let alone defined. Discrimination may be part of them but also lack of quality. The entire quality question is in itself a totally impossible thing to treat statistically. Performers have entirely subjective ideas about quality and given the entirely splintered field of contemporary music, written by dead or living composers, ANY performance of ANY ‘new piece’ (whatever that may mean in which context) is determined entirely by its own unique constellation of unpredictable factors. The best females can do is to try to write as best as they can, and hope to find other people to share their aesthetic vision. That is all there is.