Gender inequality in classical music

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While women have increasingly assumed professional leadership positions, not all sectors have been opened to the possibility of breaking stereotypes. Instead, many continue to put up barriers to prevent women from achieving their goals based on their preparation, talent and professionalism.

The world of classical music remains very closed. Although the number of female performers is increasing every day, the role of conductor falls almost exclusively to men. It is a problem of opportunity. Women conductors do not ask the world, they only ask that their work be taken into account, without gender implications.

Recently the life of Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and many other important orchestras, was the subject of a film. Despite the good reviews she received during her career, she never became a conductor and had to deal with sexism. Officials demeaned her and downplayed her talent because she was a woman.

The film, The driver, demonstrates the reality of gender inequality on the orchestra podium. After so many years, it would seem that the situation would be different, but no. Today there are few female conductors, and far fewer in elite symphony orchestras.

The job is to lead a group of people and give an identity to the result. Not all men in the industry believe women can take on this role. On the one hand, there is the idea that men are the ones who are made to give orders, take certain responsibilities, lead groups and, on the other hand, some believe that women on the podium can become a distraction.

Women in music have been systematically silenced. Less than 10% of conductors in the world are women. Until recently, a single woman had run, when she was tenured, one of the most prestigious companies in the United States. Marin Alsop, from 2007 to 2021, conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and created an educational program to provide free lessons to children in that city. Although there was some resistance when she was selected, Alsop stayed on for 14 seasons and is expected to be invited for a few more years.

Alsop became a benchmark, but she was very lonely all these years on the podium. The conductor admits that when she was elected she believed the move would open up many more opportunities for others, but she is surprised the numbers show a different reality even today.

In recent years, women leading elite ensembles have made headlines because they were women, exposing the gender inequality in this industry to a wider audience. A few weeks ago the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced Nathalie Stutzmann as the new conductor, and she becomes the first woman to assume the position of the ensemble.

Some most famous names conducting international orchestras, Ariane Matiakh, Laurence Equilbey, Alice Farnham, Marin Alsop, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Alondra de la Parra. They fought against all odds, broke the barriers imposed by the guardians of tradition and became a source of inspiration for young emerging musicians.

The mentality is changing, but very slowly. It was not until 1997 that the Vienna Philharmonic accepted women as instrumentalists, after social pressure helped change this reality. At the time, it was a big controversy within the cultural world, but even today, there are few female musicians in the staff.

The process was not easy. Many girls and young women learn to play instruments, but few occupy important positions in classical music. It’s not about sticking to statistics and filling positions to please, but if they allow themselves to consider other options, they will surely find excellent female composers, conductors and instrumentalists.

Marin Alsop continues to help change the image of women in management positions. A few years ago she became the first woman to conduct Last Night of the Proms and recently she took over the conduct of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, making her the first female conductor. permanent staff of this institution. Vienna is known for its great musical past, so it is a responsibility for conductors like Marin Alsop to seize these opportunities so that in the future it will only be a few chosen women.

It’s a great time in history to focus on the role of women in leadership positions. In the world of music, there is not the equality that we should see these days. While there are more opportunities than in the past, the discrimination is still palpable, even though it is better than 100 years ago when Antonia Brico was constantly shunned. Now is not the time to get discouraged, better prospects are on the way, as Marin Alsop said: “Believe in yourself… because you will create a future full of possibilities”.

Image credit: Governor of the State of São Paulo


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