Why are there so few female composers?

One of the most striking aspects of the commentary around Judith Weir’s appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music has been just how much of it has been about her gender – as if somehow her being a woman comes first, and her being a composer comes second. And yet her appointment offers a splendid opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with her many magical, beguiling works; to reflect on the distinctiveness of her compositional voice whether writing for children, amateurs or the CBSO; and to wonder at her ability to talk about music and its value directly and clearly to any kind of audience. This is why she is such a great choice.

Maybe as an industry we should pause and reflect on her appointment, examine our assumptions about women composers and ask ourselves why it is that in 2014 there are still ‘firsts’ for women (something that Marin Alsop commented on when writing about being the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms last year). If we believe that compositional talent is not innately linked to gender, why is there still such inequality? And what can we do to change things?
Let’s start with the numbers…

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We could go further – and it gets more depressing. Here are percentages for women involved in the upper echelons of the composing world:

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Why is there this funnel effect? Why do women, more than men, lose motivation to continue studying music and musical composition, and why are they then less likely to put themselves forward?

Playing devil’s advocate, I could say that surely all selection and programming decisions need to be gender-blind – in other words, made purely on the basis of quality. Well, quite. But gender-blind is not the same as gender-neutral. Clearly there is something about the classical music industry which fosters an institutional bias against talented women composers coming through. (And, incidentally, the women composers I know would without exception be horrified and feel deeply patronised if they were chosen for anything other than their talent.)

Perhaps there are too many examples of all-male panels, all-male shortlists, all-male programmes? Are there still too few role models? Is it relevant that the significant majority of people taking decisions about which composers to programme or work with are men – the conductors, chief executives, broadcasters and senior composers of the music business? And perhaps, therefore, there isn’t enough of a sense of urgency to address something which they may not realise is not working properly. What assumptions do we hold, consciously or unconsciously, which contribute to this situation?

Sound and Music has sought not only to raise awareness of the issue of the gender gap in composition, but also to lead by example.

To be honest, I don’t know the answers. But those of us who run the institutions that build the foundations upon which a career as a composer is built need to be proactive and progressive in our approach to changing the status quo. As the main agency in the UK for promotion and advocacy of new music and its creators, Sound and Music has sought not only to raise awareness of the issue of the gender gap in composition, but also to lead by example. We’ve introduced guidelines in some of our programmes (where we’re supporting tours, for example) which make clear that we expect to see women composers featured. And we talk about it, including exposing our own record and our process for scrutiny. We never have an all-male selection panel. And in the 20 or so months that I’ve been here, we’ve never had an all-male shortlist of composers, for any opportunity. I’m pleased to report that this has had absolutely no negative impact on quality whatsoever; in fact, it’s been the reverse.

I would also note that (as rather unedifying recent debate about women conductors, or indeed opera singers, has revealed) there is still a strong undercurrent of sexism – by which I mean treatment of people either more or less seriously or respectfully because of their gender – bubbling under the surface of the music industry. What assumptions are we holding, consciously or unconsciously, about women composers? Which leads me back to Judith Weir’s appointment. Let’s celebrate this great appointment and this great composer, and allow her the proper respect she deserves owing to her great talents as a composer and communicator. We must use it as a reminder that there’s a wealth of female composing talent out there, so there is really no excuse for not affording them the serious consideration they deserve. We just all need to try a bit harder.

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