Friday, February 11, 2011

The Sexist Elephant

Author’s Note: This post contains excerpts from a study I conducted in 2009. While some of the data is several years old, I believe it is still relevant to our current situation. I must apologize, though, because many of my data sources are no longer available on the Internet. If you are interested in learning more about the study or reading the full paper (with complete bibliography), please contact me here.

In her last post, Natalie asked where all the women composers are. I'm going to address the question of why there seem to be so few of us.

In discussing issues of gender and composers, we tend to dance around the issue of sexism. Instead, I'm just going to come out and say it: I believe there is sexism in the world of composition.

Not individual sexism, but societal, institutional sexism.  When there are (relatively) so few active, prominent women composers out there, in 2011, you just really have to wonder what's going on. This phenomenon isn't specific to composing--it's part of a bigger picture.  Why are there (again, relatively) still so few women in positions of political power? Why are there still so few women CEOs? Why, in the place where I work, are most of the top positions held by men and literally all but one of the secretarial positions are held by women?

The reasons people come up with for why there were far fewer women composers in the past don't (or shouldn't) apply today: lack of access to education, the expectation that women should be housewives and mothers, the composer being a "man's job." So what's going on?

First, I want to address the fact that just because progress is being made, it does not mean that sexism and prejudice have ceased to exist, in the new music field or anywhere else. I was very happy that Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize this year. But she is only the fourth woman to have done so, ever.  Many women are programmed by orchestras and other performing ensembles, but compared to men, the percentages are extremely low (fun fact: in the 2007-2008 season, of over 400 contemporary orchestral works performed in the US by members of the League of American Orchestras, only 11% were composed by women). Yes, many women are on the composition faculty at universities around the world.  But again, in the academic year 2007-2008, only 11% of composition faculty in the US were women (from The College Music Society, Directory of Music Faculties in Colleges and Universities, U.S. and Canada: 2007-2008, 29th edition). To use another analogy: having elected a president who is black does not mean that racism is dead in the US.

Where does the discrepancy begin?  Do fewer women start out wanting to be composers and pursuing that path?  Or is it that many women start out on the path, but slowly drop out, and if this is the case, when do they drop out? In high school? College? When they decide they can't make a living as a composer? When they have children? Many of these dropping-out scenarios may apply to male composers as well, but men do not seem to have the same numbers problem that women do.

Last year, I decided to conduct a pilot study on young women composers to try to answer some of these questions. The majority of women surveyed were between the ages of 25 and 34, because I was curious about what was happening to women of a younger generation, who had grown up being told that they could do anything.

There are a multitude of summer and after-school programs that attempt to encourage young girls to pursue careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, through mentoring and building confidence. I wondered if this model would work, or had already worked, in composition, and asked about it in my study. The results were not surprising. Most of the women surveyed wrote about a teacher or mentor who had encouraged them to compose and keep at it. Many of them had also participated in some type of music program when they were younger, although hardly any of these programs were specifically geared toward composers.  Also unsurprisingly, many women (though unprompted by me) spoke about the "boys club" of the field of composition and the lack of confidence they felt in themselves as composers.

Still, there is a lot more work to be done. I can’t prove that these women pursued composition because of mentoring or after-school programs, and unfortunately I did not have any women in the survey who had dropped out of the “path” I mentioned earlier—which would ultimately tell me a lot more. However, one statistic I have from the US Department of Education is telling: In the academic year 2007–2008, 28% of composition students who received master’s degrees and 20% of students who received doctorates were women. This is interesting, considering the much lower percentages I mentioned earlier--so perhaps it is not that women are not entering the field to begin with (although 20% is still a fairly low number), but that they are being discouraged or somehow being barred from success further down the line. Here again, I am dancing around this issue of ongoing institutionalized (and sometimes individual) sexism. Maybe there is an alternative reason; if you have any other ideas or suggestions, I would be very interested to hear them.

Now I must point out that I did not do a companion study on men, although I would like to do so someday. Some of my male composer friends, when hearing about this, pointed out that the lack of confidence issues were not necessarily gender-related, and might have had more to do with the "soul of the artist," which is entirely plausible.  Nevertheless, even though I'm sure many male composers also have confidence issues, they are surrounded by male role models and the (male) composing giants of the past and present. Can a young female composer look at Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Steve Reich, John Adams, John Corigliano, etc., and think, "someday I will be one of them," as easily as a male composer can?

Yes, women today can do anything, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of barriers. I think we do a real disservice to women composers (and women in general) if we don’t acknowledge that sexism and discrimination still exist.

Posted by Sarah

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