Female musicians limited by sexism

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
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Editor's note: This weekly series highlights stories of women mentioned in the media. Find previous installments under our 'women in news' tag.

The phrase “glass ceiling” is a popular terminology, and for good reason. The term is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions.” We talk about glass ceilings in politics, in STEM fields, and in the military, but one field that is often overlooked is music.

The glass ceiling in music is particularly prevalent in the world of symphony orchestras. Old biases and stereotypes continue to prevail in auditions for percussionists, brass players, and string bass players as these sections have continued to be predominantly male. Blind auditions, auditions where players are seated behind a screen so the audition board can only hear, not see them, have helped reduce gender biases to an extent.

However, these auditions have gotten to the point where musicians must take off their shoes in some cases so adjudicators cannot guess sex based on heel clicks. Why should the sex of a musician have anything to do with whether they are hired are not? What creates an environment where measures to prevent this basis have to be this extreme?

Of all the orchestras out there the Vienna Philharmonic is the one that has caused the most outrage with regard to gender discrimination. The Vienna Philharmonic is a world renowned orchestra whose work has been adored by classical music lovers since the orchestra’s early beginnings. The fatal flaw of the group, though, is the fact that it did not have any female members until 1997 for no other reason than they were a male-exclusive group. Although this situation has been slowly improving in the past decade, the fact that an orchestra of such high regard was able to hold on to such backwards principles for so long is infuriating.

The place in the orchestra where progress towards equality is still painfully slow is on the conductor’s podium. Orchestras have used designated conductors since the early 1800s. Prior to this, one of the musicians would typically serve as a leader, conducting with one hand or through small gestures of the body or instrument. Moving into the 19th century, a designated conductor became an absolute necessity as orchestras grew larger and new scores with added complexity were near impossible to perform without a leader pulling the musicians all together.

For as long as conductors have been around there has always seemed to be a shortage of female conductors. Now, there is no logical reason for this. Women have been accomplished musicians for as long as men have. What is most appalling, however, is how strongly this basis continues to prevail into the modern century.

In 2007, Marin Alsop was appointed as the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This was a historical moment because, up until this point, no woman had ever served as the conductor of a major U.S. orchestra. Now, almost one decade later, Alsop is still the singular female conductor of a top-tier United States orchestra.

The next time you look up at the gorgeous ceiling of a concert hall, know that the glass ceiling there is only beginning to see cracks appear, but one day that ceiling will shatter and come raining down in sparkling glory.