New survey: 86% bassoons, 95% doublebasses, are men

A survey of 22 international orchestras reveals astonishing disparities in certain instruments.

The survey reports:

Bassoon (86% male), double bass (95%), and timpani (96%) players are predominately men.

Just one of the 103 trumpet players in the 22 orchestras is a woman, and there are no women among the 99 trombonists and 26 tuba players.

There is a small majority for women on flute and violin.

Now why is that?

Read on here.

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  • In 2009, a scholar in the UK completed a gender ratio survey of 35 major orchestras. She found that 30% of the members were women. For details about each orchestra see:

    The result from 2009 is one percent higher than the “Quartz At Work” study in 2018, but comparisons are difficult. The cross section of 35 orchestras sampled in the 2009 study is probably more representative than the “top 20” orchestras as listed by Grammaphone used for the Quartz study.

    Dr. Regina Himmelbauer had surveyed the same 35 orchestras four years earlier (i.e. in 2005.) The 2009 study showed that the average increase in the percentage of women in the 35 orchestras had increased 4%, or about 1% per year. The numbers varied by orchestra. Some like the Boston Symphony dropped slightly, while some like the New York Phil had increased 8% during the same period.

    The same anonymous scholar mentioned above completed a gender ratio survey of the UK’s twenty major orchestras in 2010. 38.89% were women – about 9% above the international survey. The highest ratio was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra which had 50% women. That was higher than any other major orchestra surveyed even in the international study. The UK listing by orchestra is here:

    The 2005 survey listed the gender ratios by instrument for the 35 orchestras. They align very closely with the numbers listed by Quartz. 87% of the bassoonists were men, and 97% of the timpanists. In 13 years, apparently nothing has changed in these ratios. Women brass players remain extremely rare, mostly under 1% for trumpet, trombone, and tuba.

    • The scholar in the UK who completed the surveys in 2009 and 2010 didn’t want me to list her name because she was afraid that being associated with issues tied to the rights of women in music might harm her career.

  • At 1st glance I can see that this is not an accurate survey. It says there are no female tuba players in the world’s top orchestras. Philadelphia Orchestra’s solo tuba is a woman.

    • They used orchestras from Grammophone’s list of top 20 from about 10 years ago – and for whatever reason Philly didn’t make the cut.

      • Thanks for explaining. 10 years ago means this survey is seriously outdated. And Grammophone is notoriously UK – centric. Someone needs to contact the authors of this “survey” and bring them up to date. Or at least get them in on this conversation.

  • “Now why is that?”

    Perhaps Norman’s choice of photo is an indication of the reasons behind the situation. Why didn’t you show a nude man playing an instrument, as a demonstration of success? No, by choosing this particular photo — and yes, of course it is a choice; surely there were photos of professional women playing the instruments in question? — you reduced women instrumentalists to their bodies. A naked body, in a provocative pose. Perhaps that woman is a skilled player, or just a model, I don’t know and it does not matter. But the choice of photo for this particular subject is very telling.

    • The photo seems to ironically stress the sexist sensibilities behind the gender-coding of instruments, which I think we can safely assume was Norman’s intent. An ironic portrayal of the male gaze, as it were…

      It also seems related to one of the more famous sexist comments in music history, that of Sir Thomas Beecham referring to a cellist whose playing he disliked, “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it!”

      To belabor the obvious, most people are glad the days are gone when degrading women like that was accepted — or at least we hope they are gone…

  • So you complain of orchestras being sexists but you yourself put a sexist picture for the article? Now why is that?

  • Not arguing with the basic premise of the article. But, they clearly missed The Philadelphia Orchestra – Please she’s the Principal Tuba of TPO. Yes, it is quite a rarity.

    P.S. What’s with that photograph choice, Norman?

  • In addition to Philly’s tubist, their french horn section contains two women as do the NY Phil’s. In Phil’s bassoon section principal and ass’t principal are women. Philly’s contrabassoon is also a woman.

  • From Spain: here’s Spain’s take on the situation of women in their orchestras. This University of Computense (Madrid) study is from 2011. The statistics are remarkably similar to the one above.

    Overall percentage of women in Spanish orchestras in 2011 (there are 26 full time pro. orchs. in Spain) was between 30-34%. The study breaks it down for each of Spain’s 26 orchestras.

    Women are predominantly found in string sections, esp. violin, where they are 47% of total violinists, and in flute, at 43%.

    The study makes some interesting points. The percentage of women in the best paying, most prestigious orchestras (Madrid, Barcelona) is significantly lower than in the “peripheral” less prestigious orchs, which pay less.

    The study also tracks percentage of women by nationality. (in the early 90’s, Spain had an influx of foreign musicians, which raised the percentage of women musicians). Although it’s now changing, foreign women constitute a large portion of Spain’s female orchestra population.

    It’s also broken down by instrument. Female bassists, similar to the study above were at 9% of Spain’s total orch. bass population in 2011. Bassoon varied between 10-20% female. Every instrument is accounted for, with the customary deficit in timp/percussion, which has had a dramatic uptick in Spain since 2011, fortunately.

    This is a terrific, comprehensive study, analyzing a number of factors in the gender composition of Spain’s orchs. Granted, it’s now 7 yrs. old, but the points made and the statistics presented are still quite relevant. Here’s the link:

  • Why? Fewer female players to choose from. Why? It starts at the beginning.

    A few reasons…

    – At the age at which players take these instruments up, most girls have mental images of what it means to be a “girl” and playing a loud instrument that is a hassle to carry around is NOT one of those images.

    – At the age at which players take up these instruments, girls don’t like being in a crowd of boys. In a beginner band you might have 3 girls out of 12 trumpets but they will drop out sooner than most because the boys are unpleasant to deal with every day.

    – Parents rarely encourage girls to play these instruments. I’ve met a number of female trombone players over the years. Every one of them, without exception, had the same answer to why they chose trombone:

    “My older brother [or uncle, father, male in-law…] used to play it so we already had the trombone around…”

  • Mr. Lebrecht could have cited other statistics:
    A majority of music majors at American colleges are women; majority of students in American high school bands and choirs are girls; majority of players in many regional professional American orchestras are women.
    He seems to be ignoring this significant change during our lifetimes, as well as ignoring that tenured positions in top professional orchestras may take 40 years to turn over.
    Would it satisfy Mr. Lebrecht’s impatience if male tenured principal bassoonists immediately resign their positions?

    • In fairness, it was not his article. I have questions, too, about the statistics and what orchestras they represent. Not that gender equity is not a problem, but the zero trumpet players, trombone players and tuba players indicates that some major US orchestras were not included in the survey. In this country at least, the makeup of orchestras has changed dramatically since the introduction of blind auditions. But pay equity, equality of women in principal positions, and other more subtle areas of difference remain.

  • So what !!!! What is the point of all of this? Why keep bringing up these useless matters? Are orchestras in serious jeopardy?
    And the sexist picture is unworthy of this site. Disgusting.

  • Also, check out the lady’s legs. How long would they have to be for that much thigh to be sticking out on either side of a bass? Also, how long must her torso be? Either the picture is photoshopped or she’s actually a gigantic praying mantis.

  • I didn’t know that Melania Trump played bass….BTW, that’s a nice looking instrument she has between her legs 😉

  • How stupid. Physical characteristics are an important factor of what instrument one should play. A woman who is less than 5’3″ should not play the cello, nor the double-bass. Even the harp is too big for those too small. Females may not find playing with a male-register voice like a bassoon attractive, where they play the flute in droves. Instruments require a lot of physical strength and size to avoid harming ones self and to have good tone quality. Has Lebrecht ever played an instrument? You cannot understand music by merely listening.

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