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
Posted by Sarah