Music

Why Are There so Few Female Conductors?

For women, the symphony is not so different from the boardroom

Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie

Judith Yan sits on a park bench but speaks from the belly of a jet. She has closed her eyes to summon the sensation of conducting her first orchestra, twenty-five years ago and sixty musicians deep. At the time, Yan was finishing a composition degree at the University of Toronto, and a friend with an ensemble invited her on stage, asking, “Wanna give the car a spin?” But as soon as Yan heard the colossal, consuming sound of Brahms’s First Symphony—the rising strings and falling woodwinds, the throbbing timpani, the piercing horn—she had another machine in mind. “You’re in the middle of this noise, and it surrounds you,” Yan says. “It is the wildest experience.”

Yan is now the artistic director of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra in southern Ontario, and sitting across from her in a downtown Toronto park presents me with a rare opportunity to see conducting up close. We decide to play a game: she tells me she’s going to do something from The Sound of Music, and I have to name that tune. She’s a slight woman, but her fingers are long, and her hands are large; the right one keeps time, while her fluttering left makes the silent song seem—there’s no other word for it—bouncy. I guess “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and I’m right. Yan shifts into what I suspect is “The Sound of Music,” but it’s getting a little hard to focus. A throng of new mothers in workout clothes has descended on our corner of the park; they’ve arranged their strollers in a haphazard circle and are now taking turns doing jumping jacks inside it. We try to ignore them, but the ladies are closing in: one woman, inspired to do some lunges, plunks her back heel straight onto our bench. “How about we move,” Yan suggests finally.

Having spent ten years as a ballet student, Yan was accustomed to being surrounded by women, but in her current profession, the odds of encountering another female conductor are decidedly thin. Not that she much wants to talk about it. Most female conductors would far rather break down the finer points of score interpretation than spend time dissecting gender politics. In private conversations, they recount details of sexist orchestra management. But on the record, many are reluctant to concede that being a woman may have worked against them with hiring committees or boards, hesitant to risk backlash from their tiny, traditionalist community. For their part, male artists assured me the professional path was clear for all.

But it’s difficult to dismiss gender from the question of who owns the podium. Only seven of Canada’s approximately fifty orchestral music directors—so named because they’re both the principal conductors and the artistic heads of their institutions—are women. That 14 percent, though, is an improvement over the United States, where the bigger the operation, the less likely a woman is to be in charge. Although nearly 25 percent of all conducting doctorates in the US are now awarded to women, and 19 percent of the conductors, assistant conductors, and music directors that belong to the League of American Orchestras—the national organization to which most credible orchestras belong—are female, just 60 (or 11 percent) of the 537 music directors with US orchestras are women. Of the twenty-four highest-budget operations, only one features a woman at the helm.

This sort of discrepancy is typical for women in positions of power: note how many hold a seat in Parliament (26 percent), or the highest-paid jobs at our 100 top companies (8.5 percent). And Canada has never officially elected a female prime minister. This imbalance can be explained in a few ways. Gruelling hours disadvantage women, who often shoulder more child-care responsibilities than men do. Having few female mentors can translate into limited chances for networking or advancement. It can be more enticing to simply drop out than to speak out about discrimination. And if the world of symphonic conducting is any indication, our society is threatened by women in leadership. It’s one thing for a woman to be playing second oboe or viola, a neat figure in black wedged in the orchestra pit. It is another for her to be the head of that tuxedoed flock, commanding them with a wave of a baton. The politics of the symphony may be obscure, but the prejudices women face as they vie for the podium exist across the entire spectrum of professional achievement.

It’s the conductor who makes it possible for up to 300 performers to play music together. That means starting at the same moment, following the same tempo, finding the right balance. It also involves communicating a language or style—expressing a vision of the overarching musical journey. The baton, typically held in the conductor’s right hand, controls how quickly or slowly the musicians play. The conductor has to inform the orchestra what to do next, not in that moment—they’re already in the moment—which is why the baton can sometimes appear fractionally out of sync with the music that audiences hear. “You’re listening and reacting to what the orchestra is doing. You’re reacting for the future,” says Gemma New, named Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director in September 2015. Vancouver-based conductor Janna Sailor says, “I feel like a mix of an air-traffic controller and a DJ.”

As the baton maintains the pace, a conductor’s left hand and face convey the personality of the piece. The hand sculpts the air, demonstrating fluidity or grace, anger or stubbornness. The face complements that sense of mood, and the best conductors can communicate with even the subtlest of gestures—YouTube has preserved a concert in which Leonard Bernstein conducts with pursed lips and bushy eyebrows alone.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, when conductors began to replace violinists or harpsichordists as leaders of an orchestra, the person relaying information from the podium has almost always been a man. That mirrored the make-up of the larger classical world, where men and women rarely played together. When it came to the music of an orchestra, men composed, men played, men made the decisions about the ensemble. Renowned musicians and conductors claimed that women would cause disorder and compromise the “emotional unity” of an ensemble, and that they lacked the nerves, strength, and endurance to play. The Munich Philharmonic Symphony’s music director insulted his players by saying, “You sound like a ladies’ orchestra.” Zubin Mehta, then conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told The New York Times in 1970: “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra. They become men. Men treat them as equals; they even change their pants in front of them. I think it’s terrible.”

These sorts of assessments were undermined by the introduction of blind auditions in the early 1960s, an approach that was intended to combat gender bias and is still widely used today. Once female musicians began to play behind a screen, identities concealed and footsteps muffled by a thick carpet (to conceal the players’ gaits), their chances of being hired rose significantly. In 1970, women represented less than five percent of all players in the top five American symphony orchestras. By 1997, that number had reached 25 percent, and in 2014, according to the League of American Orchestras, 47.4 percent of orchestra musicians were women. Canada does not keep its own records, but Katherine Carleton, executive director of Orchestras Canada, estimates that the numbers here are roughly the same.

History is muddy when it comes to identifying the first female conductor of a mixed-gender orchestra; we do know that in 1930, Antonia Brico became the first woman to lead the Berlin Philharmonic (prompting the New York Times headline: “Yankee Girl Startles Berlin Critics”). Since then, progress has been slow. The Vienna Philharmonic did not invite a female guest conductor to lead its prestigious orchestra until 2005. In 2013, Marin Alsop conducted the Last Night of the Proms concert in London’s celebrated Royal Albert Hall, the first woman to do so in the show’s 118 years of existence. (During the performance, her podium was accessorized with pastel streamers and pink balloons that read “It’s a girl!”) Ten years after her initial appointment at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop remains the lone female conductor among the highest-budget US orchestras.

Regrettably, you can’t simply throw up a screen and ask prospective conductors to work behind it. It’s not unusual for musicians to be involved in the hiring process, which requires actually being able to see the person on the podium. Candidates are evaluated through videos they send in, concerts in other venues, rehearsals that gauge their repertoire, and at least one public performance. They meet with patrons and donors, attend community events, and sit through interviews with representatives of the board of directors—the ultimate decision is based not just on applicants’ talent, but also on their disposition.

And so bias remains explicit. While male conductors were once concerned about female musicians’ resolve and talent, they’re now more preoccupied with their female peers’ comely forms. In 2014, prominent Finnish conductor Jorma Panula bemoaned the rise of women on the podium, where they stood “making faces, sweating, and fussing.” Yuri Temirkanov, who preceded Alsop as music director in Baltimore, told a Russian newspaper that the presence of a woman threatens an orchestra’s success, since players “will look at her and be distracted from the music.” That sentiment was echoed in 2013 by Vasily Petrenko, then thirty-seven years old and the conductor of philharmonics in Oslo and Liverpool, who declared, “A cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.”

When I listed these comments for Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—which is made up almost equally of male and female players—he groaned. “You know what they say about tradition,” he says. “Tradition is yesterday’s bad habits.” Those habits are particularly strong in the classical-music world, which reveres practices established 300 years ago. In fact, many artists and audience members appreciate the music precisely because of the formality of the attire, venue, decorum, and roles associated with it. In a New Yorker profile of Marin Alsop, critic Alex Ross wrote that “the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors . . . new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige.”

In February of 2015, the Dallas Opera launched a twenty-year initiative to promote female representation on the podium. Its annual residency program, the Hart Institute for Women Conductors, is open to six women in the field—in its first year, more than 100 prospects applied, and last year, the number rose to 156. Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera, notes that in their applications, many women described instances of discrimination, but few wanted to discuss them openly. “I think any conductor trying to establish a big career needs to have a lot of friends and admirers in different companies,” he says.

Those conductors who do elect to speak out make a point of emphasizing that this is not a problem exclusive to their field. Janna Sailor has heard comments that hurt: “Women shouldn’t expect to get far,” or “You’ll get further wearing a short skirt on the podium.” She concedes that she doesn’t call people out for making these comments as often as she should, because she’d rather ignore their ignorance. “Whenever I’ve had high-up positions, there is muttering: ‘Oh, she probably slept with the conductor to get there,’” she says. “I don’t think that’s unique to orchestras. That happens any time women step up.”

The conductors I interviewed describe the relationship they share with an orchestra in almost romantic terms: a conductor’s success is contingent on establishing mutual trust with the players, on creating an intimate and sublime spark. “You don’t always know why a conductor gets something out of you,” says Sailor, who is an accomplished violinist and the assistant conductor of the Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra. “Someone just rings your bell.” But chemistry is tricky to define, and its ineffability can provide cover for more prosaic forms of bias. Judith Yan worked well with male maestros in Toronto and San Francisco, but says “the challenge came when I had to make that transition from staff conductor to music director.” A few years ago, she auditioned for a position at a second-tier North American company. “The artistic director called me and said, ‘You got top marks from the orchestra and the audience, but we just don’t feel comfortable with you as the music director.” Yan thanked him, hung up the phone, processed the shock, then emailed him ten minutes later asking for clarification. “He denied the entire conversation.”

For most female conductors, success on the podium seems tied to a presentation that masks their gender. But there are exceptions: Nova Scotia–born Barbara Hannigan forgoes the sombre pantsuit in favour of sleeveless dresses. She’s also an even rarer artistic hyphenate, the soprano-conductor, simultaneously singing and leading from the stage. Like celebrated Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will take over New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2020, Hannigan brings a palpable, theatrical expressiveness to her arm movements—her arms just happen to be bare. A dress “has worked very well for me,” Hannigan says. “But I wouldn’t recommend it for other people unless it came naturally to them.”

It usually doesn’t. Marin Alsop—who conducted at the Royal Albert Hall in a black pantsuit with red cuffs, her preferred attire—has said that when musicians don’t notice she’s a woman, it means she’s “doing a really good job.” Tania Miller, who in 2003 became the country’s first female Canadian music director of a major ensemble, says she approaches her conducting career from a completely non-gendered stance. “I personally feel that if you are too feminine, too emotional, it wouldn’t necessarily work,” Miller, music director of the Victoria Symphony, says. “I treat this as an athletic and cerebral and expressive event. I go out dressed to be a professional.”

Miller is also the mother of two children. And the desire to have a family can be difficult to square with the demanding nature of a conductor’s schedule. Gemma New, who took over the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2015 at the age of twenty-eight, has been travelling, on average, every two weeks for the past six years; she anticipates that this season will be busier still. Over the course of two months last spring, Yan travelled to Ottawa, Seoul, Warsaw, and Guelph and conducted three ballet productions, two symphony concerts, and three children’s concerts. That sort of peripatetic existence is not unusual for conductors, including those with home symphonies in Canada. “Being a conductor is a solitary life,” New says.

“If you take those few women conductors, how many of them have kids?” Miller says. “It gets to be a pretty small group.” She actively conducted through both her pregnancies, performing at a Beethoven festival when she was seven months pregnant and conducting Brahms’s First Symphony one week before she had her second child. She says that her musicians were supportive and her audiences charmed. But Miller declined guest-conducting opportunities in Europe while she was pregnant, worried she would make a “shocking first impression,” and she recognizes how fortunate she was to be in a position to choose. “This is a top-ranking leadership position, and there have to be some sacrifices,” she says. “For some women, that can mean the difference between being married and not, having children and not. There are a lot of reasons to take yourself out along the way.”

One solution to this gender imbalance is straightforward: in order for more women to reach the podium, more women need to reach the podium. A 2005 study by Amelia Showalter, Barack Obama’s former director of digital analytics, examined the impact of electing women to statewide office. It turns out that representation is a powerful recruitment tool. “Elect a woman to prominent office today,” Showalter wrote in a Medium article summarizing her research, “and you’ll see more women entering politics at lower levels tomorrow.” Her data found that the more prestigious the gig—from state attorney general to governor to US senator—the greater the resulting increase.

“Women in powerful positions aren’t just serving as role models to little girls,” Showalter writes, but to “adult women who may need a little nudge.” In their seminal 2000 study of blind auditions, “Orchestrating Impartiality,” American researchers Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse determined that the increase in the number of female musicians wasn’t the result of an identity-shielding screen alone: more women were applying.

The hitch for conductors, though, is that they can’t develop their craft in isolation. “You need a huge community to build your skills, and the agreement of a lot of people—not just the orchestra, but the board, the audience,” Yan says. “You have to intern like a doctor. And if nobody gives you the opportunity, your PhD in conducting really means nothing.”

Katherine Carleton of Orchestras Canada concedes that change can come only as quickly as there are conductor vacancies, and music directors tend to stay put for anywhere from five to fifteen years. Faced with a scarcity of opportunities, Canadian women have created positions for themselves. In 1987, conductor Véronique Lacroix founded the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, which showcases multidisciplinary Canadian work, and two years later, Lorraine Vaillancourt founded the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, a chamber orchestra devoted to contemporary classical music. Dina Gilbert, the thirty-two-year-old music director of L’Orchestre Symphonique de L’Estuaire, cites both these groups as inspirations for her own ensemble, Arkea, a chamber orchestra she developed in 2010.

After narrowly missing out on two assistant-conductor spots in Vancouver and Calgary, Janna Sailor rounded up a group of female friends to stage a benefit concert for Music Heals, a music-therapy organization in British Columbia. “I had so many women willing to donate their time and talent,” Sailor says. “I thought, this is something that wants to be born.” In June, she launched the Allegra Chamber Orchestra, an all-female ensemble that has now grown to thirty-eight musicians. Its initial benefit concert featured Beethoven’s mighty Symphony no. 3, a handful of Handel arias, and work from composer Jennifer Butler. Allegra has booked ten concerts for its 2017 season, all at events with social-action mandates.

Fellowship programs and parallel initiatives that champion women cannot themselves fix the fundamental problems of a classical world resistant to change. Still, the female conductors I spoke with agree that their road to the podium has fewer obstacles now than it did a decade or two ago. They are encouraged by the successes of women such as thirty-year-old Gemma New, thirty-year-old Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and forty-seven-year-old Susanna Mälkki, who is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and will become principal guest conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic next year. They feel the ground shifting and just need a little more time.

Time, though, may be a luxury orchestras can ill afford: they’re currently contending with financial deficits and wavering audience attention spans. Maintaining institutional barriers could hasten their decline. “Any enterprise that restricts full participation to 50 percent of the population is an enterprise with a short future,” Carleton says. “If you’re only going to bring in people who look like you do, you’re losing opportunities to innovate and respond creatively to the giant challenges that orchestras face.”

This appeared in the January/February 2017 issue.

Danielle Groen (@daniellegroen) has written for Chatelaine, Toronto Life and the Globe and Mail.

Ashley Mackenzie (ashmackenzie.com) counts the New York Times, Scientific American, and The New Republic among her clients.

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