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The gender imbalances in orchestras and how we can combat them

Updated: May 17, 2021

For the purposes of this article the words male/man and female/woman refer solely to a person's gender identity, not to their biological sex.

It will be no surprise to hear that there is gender imbalance in professional orchestras. As in many professions, men make up a larger proportion of the higher ranking positions than women.

Historically, professional orchestras only permitted men. It wasn't until 1898 when Mary Wurm sounded the first women's orchestra in Berlin, that women were permitted to perform outside of the home. And it wasn't until 1913, when The Queen's Hall Orchestra, led by Sir Henry Wood (founder of The Proms), accepted 6 female violinists that women played in any major professional orchestra.

Most orchestras began to accept women sometime during the middle of the 20th century; although the Vienna Philharmonic (popularly known for their annual New Year's Day Concerts) didn't accept women as full time members until 1997!

Given this strong history, it is no surprise that men still make up the majority of a professional orchestra, however with around twice as many girls learning musical instruments than boys, this raises some serious questions concerning gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes and ambition

Gender stereotypes often lead to the belief that women are not permitted to have aspirations that as high as those of their male colleagues. This is something that for me is very alien.

I was brought up in a very support family where both me and my brother were supported in all of our aspirations no matter how high. Our ambitions were believed in and we were encouraged to plan our futures in such a way that we could make our dreams a reality. And I'm so proud to say that we have! I have always wanted to be a professional cellist and study music abroad - which I am doing; and my brother has always wanted to work with animals and he is currently studying Veterinary Medicine at university.

But for so many, their dreams do not become a reality, if they are ever fully formed and believed in at all. This is something that upsets me deeply and something that needs addressing in society.

We need to support and encourage all of our young people in envisaging their dreams and ambitions and planning for these in a way that will ensure their success.

And if their ambitions are not realised we need to ensure that this is because of a choice that they have made themselves, not due to lack of opportunity.

Gender stereotypes and musical instruments

Something else that is striking when you watch any orchestra, is the gender imbalance within sections.

Take for example the brass section. When you imagine say, a trumpet player, you will invariably think of a man. But why? Well, simply because there are more male trumpet players than female. But why?

The concepts of masculinity and femininity go back to the dawn of time and stem from our physical differences as men and women, and therefore determined our roles in early civilisation. But in reality, in the 21st century, there is now no place for defined gender roles, and yet the concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine still exist.

For some reason (I'm still not entirely clear as to why!), certain musical instruments are considered more masculine or more feminine than others.

During a series of studies in 1978, adults were asked to choose a musical instrument for their hypothetical son or daughter from a list of eight instruments. The data collected, corresponded to a perceived masculine-feminine continuum, on which the instruments wee then placed. At the masculine end of the spectrum were the trumpet, trombone and drums. At the feminine end were the violin, flute and clarinet. And somewhere in the middle, but not considered as predominantly, masculine or feminine were the saxophone and cello.

These results are probably no surprise to anyone. Most people's unconscious bias doe suggest that a flute is more feminine than a trumpet. But when the study was repeated with children the results were very different. The youngest children in the group (age 5) showed no preference towards masculine or feminine instruments in relation to their gender. But the results did change, and become more similar to the results of the adults as the children got older (the study included children from ages 5 - 10).

This not only suggests that young children do not perceive musical instruments on this masculine-feminine scale, but that these gender stereotypes can be, and are created. This gives us an opportunity to make a change.

If we were to actively present instruments in a non-gender-specific manner to children as they grow up, perhaps we will, to some extent, be able to get rid of the music instrument masculine-feminine continuum all together! To do this would require a proactive and united approach from both teachers, parents and the media, which may be difficult to achieve, but as mentioned earlier, doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to it.

Wouldn't it be brilliant if we had girls playing the tuba as well as boys, and boys playing the flute alongside girls?! Music making would become even more fun and inclusive and children would feel able to choose the instrument they feel best represent themselves without any pressure, stigma or ridicule for choosing a "girly" instrument for example!

The positives!

And whilst there is still a long way to go with all of this, on International Women's Day (which I would personally like to rename Day of Gender Equality), it is important to celebrate how far we have come in a relatively short space of time in terms of equality.

There are now more female conductors than ever before, with Marin Alsop conducting the Last Night of the Proms in both 2013 and 2015, and Dalia Stasevska conducting the same event in 2020.

Female composers are being rediscovered left, right and centre and their music is being performed more and more in concert programmes.

Blind auditions for orchestras (where the panel can't see the person auditioning which therefore eliminates the possibility of any unconscious bias), have led the way for recruiting more women into orchestras.

And since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, more people in general are learning a musical instrument and taking part in all the fun!

I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and have discovered something new that you didn't know before. If you liked this post, have any questions, seek advice and support, or suggest a topic for a future post - please leave a comment or send me a message - I'd love to hear from you! 😃

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