50:50 by 2020

To mark International Women’s Day 2017, Sound and Music make the following commitment:

  • By March 2020, at least 50% of the composers we work with will identify as women


It’s hard to pinpoint cause and effect, but in conversations with other female leaders in the sector, a number of us have noticed a creeping negative shift in attitudes towards women. Somehow the current political climate seems to have given permission for behaviours and attitudes that we thought we had seen the back of. A lack of respect; not being taken seriously; a low level but deeply wearing sniping, or worse, at women in positions of authority. (For a really interesting take on this, including its manifestation in Gamergate as well as its link to the rise of extreme right libertarian politics, do have a read of this.)

All of us here at Sound and Music are concerned and unnerved by these attitudes and the pernicious inequality we see around us, including in our own field. We want to address these issues in a positive way and to join with others in committing to widespread, tangible change across the sector.

Back in the summer of 2014, when Donald Trump was just a joke and Brexit meant…well: nothing at all, we noticed that Sound and Music’s composer application data was telling us something important. At every single stage of development, from GCSE onwards, the gap between male and female applications widened. From 50% at GCSE, 35% to our Summer School and then to 25% female applications to Sound and Music’s various professional artist development programmes.

I blogged about it at the time and we introduced clearer expectations in how we wanted to work with partners (no all-male programming in final performances, no all-male selection panels). It was revealing to see how this was received. In many cases it was welcomed joyfully but it also led to some of the most difficult exchanges I’ve ever had in my professional career. This is a topic about which emotions run high and the punctum of this seems to be that giving consideration to gender when putting together a programme displaces the primary concern and responsibility of an artistic programmer, which has to be artistic quality above all. Consciously including one or more works by women means that it is no longer just about the music.

This is an interesting one for me. It’s precisely because Sound and Music DO care about quality that we care about this issue. If it’s agreed that talent is not more prevalent in one gender than another, then this falling away of women is a terrible waste and loss of unique musical voices. As the national development organisation for new music, we have to take this seriously. We have to tackle it.

Also, I disagree with any implication that including work by women composers means that quality is compromised. I know that this isn’t what people consciously think. But unconscious bias is real and we are all dealing with it, all the time – the best we can try to do is be honest about it and seek to recognise it in action. (For an excellent place to start, check out Harvard’s Implicit Association Test.)

Unconscious bias is at work when women composers are treated less seriously than their male counterparts and this can take many forms, from asking questions about their personal lives rather than their music, to offering shorter or lighter commissions, even (a real-life extreme example) to asking a famous female composer who helped her with her orchestral piece, because she clearly couldn’t have done it all by herself.


Alongside our commitment to gender equality in the composers we work with, we will increase the number, richness of content and visibility of women composers across our platforms and programmes, including, specifically, our online living archive of 20th and 21st century British music, the British Music Collection.

The British Music Collection is an amazing resource, both in its physical form (at Heritage Quay in the University of Huddersfield) and online. Comprising information about composers, scores and recordings (and a growing repository of rich online content), it contains many fascinating discoveries and narratives. However in its current form it presents a history of 20th and 21st century British music that is overwhelmingly male. 13% of the composers listed are women and in many cases the data about them is sketchy – also, in many cases, they seem to have been productive for a very short time and then vanished.

The argument often made, of course, is that history is an effective filter for quality. Good work survives, less good work falls by the wayside. However, received ideas of history can be profoundly shaped by unconscious bias (or indeed more overt gender stereotyping, even plain old-fashioned sexism) at work over many generations. History is not a fixed reality, and canons are not set in stone.

So, to mark International Women’s Day 2017, we’ve made an intervention to illustrate the need to challenge received history and work harder to bring forward the brilliant women of the past – check it out here. Over the coming years, we’ll be working with others and through various events to bring out and reveal these fascinating but often unknown figures of the past.


We’re excited by these changes and by the vibrant possibilities opened up by a wider range of talented voices being heard, including the wider benefit to other organisations, performers and audiences. Although this commitment is about gender equality, it is also part and parcel of our widening perspectives and the desire and intention to diversify the range of artists we work with. As Richard Whitelaw has already blogged, we’re confident that working with a more representative group of composers leads a more thrilling variety of new music, more artistic innovation and also, perhaps, a positive and constructive challenge to an industry which can sometimes fall back on traditional ideas of what, or rather who, constitutes a composer.

The commitment we’re making is within Sound and Music’s gift. We recognise that this will look different from organisation to organisation. I love the idea of a supportive coalition, and a manifesto for positive change. The work of Tonic Theatre’s Advance programme has had a great impact on our thinking.

So we want to hear from other organisations who want to address gender equality and we want to understand the barriers together and work to address them.

Tokenism is the opposite of what I’m interested in. There are now so many examples where artistic curiosity and thoughtfulness have led to unusual, distinctive programmes that – by the way – have better gender balance. But the important thing is that they present a range of interesting musical voices and can result in more enriching events. The very qualities that make for a brilliant artistic director – artistic curiosity, openness, judgement, an understanding of how music is experienced over time – also lead to the best kind of ways forward in how and why more female compositional voices can be heard.


This post was reproduced in The Guardian

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