Thursday, February 3, 2011

Competition Winners and Gender: What's Up with That?

Like most young composers I know, I apply to composition competitions, awards, festivals, etc. all the time.  I have a lot to say on the subject of these competitions, but today I want to talk about the gender breakdown of the winners. Specifically, that time and again, it seems that a disproportionate number of winners are male.

Yesterday, I received an email informing me about the finalists and winners for one of these competitions. As I glanced through the list to see who had won, a not unusual pattern emerged: there were three finalists, and all three were male.  There were twelve honorable mentions; ten were male.  I am sure that all of the winners submitted excellent (whatever that means) compositions and that all deserved to win. But still... what's up with that?

To be fair to this competition that shall remain nameless, there were two female winners, which is actually a lot better than some competitions; still, it is somewhat sad when 13% is a good percentage.  While there are many more female composers alive and working today than there have been in years past, there are still undoubtedly many more male composers, for reasons that we will probably explore in a future post.  Unfortunately, there is no accurate way to determine how many people out there are composers, and how many of them are women—if there were, we could easily look at the numbers and determine whether the number of women composers winning competitions was proportional to the total number of women composers.

I decided to do a non-scientific survey of recent competitions I had entered for which I had received email notification of the winners.  In order to not be biased, I simply looked back at the five most recent emails I had received, excluding the one I just discussed. Here are the results:

  • Seventeen awards: 14 male, 2 unknown gender, 1 female
  • Four fellowship winners: 2 male, 2 female (good job, this competition!)
  • Three selected compsers: 3 male
  • Seven selected composers: 7 male (Coincidentally, the previous year for this competition had similar results: 5 selected composers, 5 male)
  • Five selected composers: 5 male (this just happens to have the same stats as the one above)

Adding up the totals, we get: 36 total awards, 31 male winners (possibly 33 if you count the two unknown genders).  This means that about 86-92% of all awards won in this “study" were won by men.  Obviously this is a very small sample size, and again, we don’t know the total number of female or male composers who applied to these competitions, or the total number out there in the world, but still—does anyone else think that number sounds a bit high? Is the number of female composers still so low that only about 11% of composers in the world are women?

I highly doubt it.  And here’s where I do actually have one fact: in 2008, the American Music Center conducted a study of composers and the field of new music in the United States, and found that 20% of the 1,347 composers surveyed were women (full disclosure: I was working at AMC in 2008).  While that number seemed very low to me at the time, it is still much higher than the (albeit flawed) 11% I found in my impromptu study. 

So why do the competition winners so often seem to be overwhelmingly male?
Every time it comes up that women don’t seem to be winning as many competitions as men, someone will inevitably imply that the pieces written by women were just not as good as those composed by their male counterparts. Well, see below for one of my favorite quotes:

Women composers are desperate for their work to be judged on merit alone; they wish to be treated equally and without discrimination, whether positive or negative. However, the belief that musical quality alone will catapult women composers into the midst of the musical canon is not only somewhat optimistic but also tends in many ways to confirm that women composers of the past and present are being ignored for all the right reasons.

 —Jill Halstead, The Woman Composer

What do you think?

Posted by Sarah


  1. I agree - I'm always tempted to compare things in your posts to publishing/literature, since that's all I know about, and here it's true too. I'm always reading articles and posts about how there's a huge disparity in the number of female award winners vs. male.

    (Some female writers also complain that men's novels are automatically appraised as literature while theirs are not, but since the writers were Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult I don't think they have much of a case.)

    Anyway, yes, I think that in composition as in the rest of the arts, women are disproportionately underrepresented.

  2. I think it's true that the situation is similar for female artists in many disciplines, whether it's music, publishing, visual art, etc. But I do think the lack of female award winners in literature is especially interesting considering that women authors have been more accepted (I think) for a much longer time than women composers, probably partly because a female author in the past could put her writing out there, whether or not it was officially published, and others could read it. With composers, you really have to get other people on board in order to have pieces performed in a way that I think authors really don't. I also think I'm paraphrasing this argument from something else I read recently and I can't remember where... okay here we go, courtesy of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times (published January 18th, 2011, "Top 10 Composers: The Female Factor"):

    "There were a significant number of female novelists, poets and painters in earlier times. But if you were a Jane Austen, you could sit at home and write your novels. As long as you found a sympathetic publisher, you could get your books distributed and be acknowledged. Compare this to the situation facing Clara Schumann, one of the most celebrated pianists of the 19th century. She was also a gifted composer, though she mostly wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber works: things that she and a circle of musician friends could perform. If she had tried to compose symphonies and operas, even she, for all her renown, would have hit a dead end with male orchestras and opera companies, which would have been unwilling to champion the works of a woman. So why bother?"

    So what do you think? Does that make it even worse these days that women authors are still not being recognized?

    I don't think Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Piccoult have much of a case considering the books they've written, but I do think they have a point. I read another article a while ago which I'll never be able to find about how books by women make top 10 types of lists much less often than do books by men because they're often not written about subjects considered important or weighty enough (like war, for example). Obviously this is a horribly vast generalization, because I'm sure there are great war books written by women... (are there??) and I hate saying that women only write on subjects like being wives and mothers and girlfriends who gossip, etc etc.

    As someone who reads a lot more than I do, what do you think? You should do a similar type of study in publishing/literature!

  3. Yeah, that's interesting about women composers needing a lot of other people to be involved - that makes sense. I guess with female writers the stumbling block is not getting their work out there, but getting it taken seriously. I think maybe women write about both romance and "important" issues, whereas men never really write books about just romance and family, unless it's something like "Freedom" (Jonathan Franzen). Which is different.

    I'll see if I can find the Jezebel article about female writers. In the meantime, though, it's an interesting distinction about Clara Schumann. But I wonder how prize committees rationalize it, since compositions aren't "about" anything the same way books are (right?). What are modern operas written about?

  4. I think that makes sense about female writers having to be taken seriously (but not necessarily having trouble getting published). Natalie addresses some of this in her new post (from today) but I think maybe an equivalent of "serious" writing in composition would be writing for orchestra. Especially if you think about what women were writing in years past, like Clara Schumann, orchestral pieces were (and still are, in some circles) taken much more seriously than chamber music. Obviously men also write chamber music, so the analogy doesn't work completely.

    Compositions today usually aren't really "about" anything in the same sense a novel is, unless they're program music, but in thinking about my own music I can definitely say that some pieces are much more "serious" than others, whatever that means. Anyone can hear the difference between a silly/fun/lighthearted piece and something serious. Personally I don't think that distinction should imply that serious music is always more important, or better, than not-serious music, but I think some people do. Some composers are known for writing serious music and others are known for writing silly music (some of this is in the titles, but usually comes through in the music itself as well). Would you take a piece called "Gardening in a Jaunty Hat" as seriously as something called "Symphony No. 1"? Probably not...

    Modern operas are about all kinds of things- most just as silly as older operas. The one that's coming to mind right now is about the relationship between Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (Timberbrit, composed by Jacob Cooper). I think you're right, it would be interesting to look into the demographics of opera composers compared with the subjects they're writing about. I'll let you know what I find. :)

    Posted by Sarah

  5. Timberbrit?!? That sounds AWESOME.

    Is Gardening in a Jaunty Hat a real piece? I want to hear it.

  6. Frankly, I think "Gardening in a Jaunty Hat" is one of the best piece titles I've ever heard/seen. INSTANT MASTERWORK.

    I'll have to add "jaunty" to my more regularly used vocabulary.

  7. Thanks, Jack! I have to admit that I didn't come up with it myself... but I agree, we should all use the word jaunty more often. :)


  8. Very valuable topic, and I'm certainly not questioning the premise (having experienced a pathetic amount of open, direct discrimination myself in my conservatory days), but I think the specific numbers here aren't enough to support much. I think it's a safe bet that a more representative % of female composers will fill out a free, online AMC survey than will enter a given competition. (You didn't mention the cost of entry for the competition, but as we know, even if there's no entry fee, there's the cost for bound scores, postage, supplies, etc.) Something that *is* well-documented with numbers is economic disparity between women and men and women's greater time commitments when they have any children/family responsibilities.

  9. Thanks, Anonymous. I agree with you that the sample size is way too small to make any definitive scientific judgments; it was just an interesting anecdote that, in my opinion, is indicative of a wider trend. The costs of entering a competition would certainly cause some composers to self-select out, but I'm not sure that would affect the gender as much as the socioeconomic status of competition winners (which I think would be fascinating to look into further). Yes, women still only make about 78 cents to the dollar, but I wonder how well that statistic holds up in the composition world (wouldn't it be exciting if it didn't!). While I have much to say about gender in the field of composition, income disparity hasn't really been on my radar- probably because most of the (both male and female) composers I know aren't making much money anyway. When we're actually paid, do female composers make less on commissions, for example, than our male counterparts? I have no idea, and I would really hope not, but I have not studied this at all. Something to look into...

    - Sarah