Women in the conducting profession

Back home after a wild trip to America I have been catching up on news and blogs and came across this post from Lisa Hirsch and the NY Times article by Antony Tommasini she is discussing.

I’ve held off talking about the whole “woman conductor” issue for some time because even though I have strong feelings about the subject, it is one you tackle in print at your own risk.

However, I’m feeling brave, and having read Ms Hirsch and Tommasini, I’ve decided to go on record with a few of my thoughts about the current and future state of women in the orchestral conducting profession.

Of course I don’t have to be reminded that I am a man, and nothing I am offering here is in anyway intended to suggest that I understand everything that women conductors have to deal with in their professional lives- these are just my takes and opinions. However, my sister is a conductor, and several of my dearest friends are woman conductors as are many of my former students, so it is a topic close to my heart and often on my mind. So, read on….

Question- Is sexism the primary reason we don’t see more women at the top of the conducting profession?

Answer- Historic sexism is the primary reason, but current sexism is only a contributing factor and no longer a very powerful one. There are more women music directors at community, college and regional orchestras than ever before and more women on staff at major  orchestras than ever before. Unlike 30 years ago, if you are a good conductor, a good networker and have the right contacts you can build a career regardless of your gender (or race), something that 35 years ago was not true.

However, there are still strong pockets of residual sexism in the field that need to be dealt with. Getting a job requires not only ability but the support of the “right” teachers, and training at the “right” institutes and festivals. It is very much an open secret within the field that some of the most powerful and influential conducting teachers and festival directors are terrible sexists- one top teacher at an elite conservatory has never had a female student in his class (although he has allowed numerous female students from all over the world to spend thousands to fly in for auditions in which they had no chance of succeeding), another is notorious for groping and sexually harassing his students. Another at one of the summer institutes is infamous for having said that one “shouldn’t conduct with tits.” These are well-known and very powerful people, consulted in searches by orchestras all over the world. Someone needs to put a stop to their actions- where are the music journalists who can investigate these issues, rather than just comment on them?

However, not all sexist behaviour comes from men, and I’ve learned from many anecdotes that often the worst and most demeaning sexist behaviour toward female conductors  can come from women, and this is behaviour that fewer people still are willing to confront. There are a subset of women who feel that they can attack a female conductor’s style, appearance or demeanour in a way no man could anymore. I would go so far as to say that in many recent instances, the worst sex discrimination toward women conductors I’ve heard about and witnessed has come from other female board members, staff members or even musicians.

One does still occasionally encounter quite odious behaviour within orchestras from a small troglodyte minority- mostly musicians who come from religious or cultural backgrounds that designate women as second class citizens. In the last 15 years, the number of religious and cultural backgrounds that so designate women seems to be getting longer rather than shorter. In this sense, we have to face up to the unfinished business of the society- as long as religion can be used as an excuse for sexist behavior, the behavior will continue.

Fortunately, today, when sexist behavior is witnessed and identified, we can generally be confident that it will be labelled as inappropriate and unprofessional. That’s progress. We need to make sure that shadowy, behind-the-scenes sexism is exposed and rooted out.


Question- If historic sexism is the primary reason we don’t see more women at the top of the conducting profession, what is the primary current reason?

Answer- The doors to this profession have really only been open for a very short time, perhaps 25-30 years at the most, and it often takes the better part of 15-20 years to build a professional career. It has taken time to create opportunities and to attract talented female musicians into the field. Also, careers take a rare combination of talent, opportunity, training, luck and perseverance- it is a numbers game, and when numbers are small the game plays out more slowly. However, there is a lot of good news out there…

Let me share a personal set of observations- The Rose City International Conducting Workshop where I teach has been going for several years, and we have an average of about 40% women students since we started, and every year some of the real stars of the class have been female, and I think this is not unusual for modern conducting workshops. Even 15 years ago, the percent of women conducting students was more like 2-10%. A Bernstein or a Haitink is both born and made- you’re talking about a rare talent who has had the good fortune to be in all the right places at almost every moment of their musical lives since childhood. When you talk about a one-in-a-million career, that means you may have to get to a million to find the one.

Marin Alsop has shown once and for all that there is no longer any reason a woman cannot conduct at the Concertgebouw or the LPO, but in my generation and the one coming up behind me there are dozens of astoundingly talented women making their way into the conducting profession.. They’re the future- there are big talents out there the likes of which we have not seen, and within 15-20 years I think there will be nearly as many women as men conducting major orchestras, perhaps more.

Question– Does a woman now entering the conducting profession today have a fair shot?

Answer- Not to be glib, but there is no such thing as a fair shot in the music business. This is the most unfair of professions- in every search there is some degree of prejudice, some agenda, some bias, even if the bias is just to hire someone local or someone as different from the last person as  possible, or someone whose agent was the college roommate of the executive director. Finding and hiring the “best” candidate is almost never the goal. All conductors of all genders and backgrounds end up both benefiting and suffering from these shifting sands of prejudice.  A young woman entering the profession today will face setbacks and find special opportunities because of her gender. How the good and bad unfairness balances out depends on talent and tenacity.

Certainly, the doors are open to women and there are now some hugely talented people in important staff positions all over. A generation ago Marin Alsop had to start her own orchestra to get an opportunity to conduct at all and Catherine Comet had to work her way in through academia at a very progressive music department. Now, almost all the major orchestras have had at least one female staff conductor at some time or another, and there are many, many women at regional orchestras, youth orchestras and community orchestras. This is where the future begins and where the real action happens. The female Karajan won’t be some agent-hyped flash in the pan exploding on the scene at 26, but someone who emerges as a great communicative artist and master of her craft, who has put the time in out in the farm system.

Question- Do we need affirmative action for women in the conducting world?

Answer- We already have a form of it, and it is not doing women any favors. It is easy to spot when an orchestra has decided it is “time to hire a woman,” because there have been some very bad hires alongside the many good ones. One bad hire like that sets everything back and gives the few remaining sexist dinosaurs out there fodder for future discrimination. Deciding to hire a woman at the outset of a search or setting aside a certain number of slots for women finalists in a search is just cowardly- it shows a complete lack of respect for the actual abilities of any number of women conductors in the field.

Question- So what is going to be the big “gender issue” in conducting in the next ten to fifteen years?

Answer- I think the discussions we are having today are going to look naïve and quaint very soon. There is a wave of talent out there and a market that is waiting for it- the sea change is just around the corner.

There is, however,  another huge, difficult and awkward issue out there, and it’s not one that anybody seems to want to talk about.

When the breakthrough comes, it is going to be market driven for better or (and!) worse, and big changes are going to come fast and furious. The recent history of instrumental  soloists tells a sobering tale- a generation ago female soloists were a tiny minority in their field, now, especially among violinists, they are the majority and the biggest stars.

However, some part of their success has come with an exploitation of the glamour factor- it is an inescapable fact that the majority of young soloists out there are quite attractive, whether male of female. Agents and orchestra managers have woken up to the fact that glamour sells, and sells big, and this has opened doors to many young women, as long as they conform to certain ideas of attractiveness.

However, this is a quintessentially Faustian bargain, and already the generation of women soloists in their 30s and 40s are getting impatient with having to play the violin-babe role. More worryingly, what are the opportunities for soloists of any gender who don’t fit the glamour mould? What is the future for today’s violin babes? Will they be dumped the way Hollywood dumps middle-aged actresses even as their artistry is reaching its peak (note Hollywood doesn’t do the same with men)? An instrumentalist should be at their peak in their 50’s, but will the industry promote opportunities for 50 year-old women with the same verve they promote 20 year-olds? Will we miss great talents in the search for glamour? Neither Ginette Neveu nor David Oistrakh would likely qualify as glamorous or marketable today- would they get opportunities to make their mark in today’s music world? I think it is very unlikely either would get a record deal today and would probably end up in academia- beloved by their students but unknown to history.

Young women shouldn’t have to make that Faustian deal- if you can play, you can play. Attractive young women shouldn’t be pressured to cash in on their looks, or to “ramp it up” or “tone it down.”  Sure, this is show business to an extent, but it’s the playing that gets standing ovations, not the dress.

The stakes are even higher in conducting, because it is so visual. I worry there will be a huge, huge emphasis on looks over the next 10-15 years. Some young women will have doors open for them, but for the wrong reasons, while others will not stand a chance because they’re the “wrong” physical type. I’ve seen the future- recently a MD search in the US got down to two candidates. In the end, the orchestra chose a female candidate of very, very dubious skill because she was so attractive and made that her primary selling point at her audition- one board member said that “it doesn’t matter if someone can conduct if nobody’s coming to the concert. Her looks will bring people in.” This is not affirmative action or reverse discrimination, but something more insidious- putting the most exploitive kind of mainstream marketing ideals ahead of the mission of the orchestra. It could just have easily have been a dashing young man (we’ve all seen this happen with men, too) beating out a veteran woman conductor, but this is the future, and, even if the people are pretty, the future may not be. A leather body suit in a promo shot may bring audience members once, but if the concert stinks, they won’t come back for anything.

In Tommasini’s article he and Marin discuss whether orchestras need affirmative action so that they look more like their communities. I think how an orchestra “looks” (as in- “does the orchestra look like the community”) should have nothing to do who we hire- the orchestra should be as much a meritocracy as it can be. As it is, the OES, for instance, is far more diverse than Pendleton. We have more representation of Black, Latino and Asian musicians (not to mention gay musicians) than the population of the town by quite a bit. Should we make the orchestra more white and more straight so it looks more like the town? (as an aside the other major population group in Pendleton is Native American, and we have had almost no success at getting young kids from that community involved in classical music programs. We’d love to improve that, not to change the look of the orchestra, but because I’ve seen the value of the programs for other  kids and want to spread the impact as widely as we can).

Question- So what can we do to help women conductors succeed?

Answer– Just call them conductors.  Don’t call them women conductors. Just call them conductors. Want to help them succeed? Just call them conductors.


PS- When are we going to see a woman coach in the NBA, MLB or NFL or at an elite NCAA men’s program? These industries attract tens of billions in tax payer subsidies, yet practice 100% blatantly sexist hiring practices. Some of the best basketball coaches in the world are women coaching women’s teams in the NCAA. Why can’t they coach men’s teams in the NCAA- there are men’s coaches of women’s teams? Male college coaches move up to the pros, why not women? Next time a team says they need half a billion for a new stadium, why not ask when they’re going to include women in their next search for scouts, coaches and general managers.


c. Kenneth Woods 2007

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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7 comments on “Women in the conducting profession”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Thank you for talking at such length and so well about this issue, and thank you for your conclusion to “just call them conductors.” I did happen to notice that you referred to Antony Tommasini (who is male) as “Tommasini” and Marin Alsop and Lisa Hirsch (who are both female) by their first names. Hmm.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    Yikes- I should have been more careful…. That’s only because I have some degree of personnal aquaitance with Alsop and Hirsch. Lisa Hirsch and I have corresponded through each other’s blogs for some time now, and I worked briefly with Marin Alsop in Cincinnati some years ago, whereas I’ve never spoken with or had any contact with Anthony Tommasini. If it had been James Oestereich, who I have met, I might have called him Jim. Also, for whater reason, Marin Alsop is usually called just Marin in the orchestra world, much like SImon Rattle is Simon and Leonard Bernstein is Lenny, but for whatever reason, Herbie never really caught on with Karajan….


  3. Lisa Hirsch

    Ahahaha. You should just call Tommasini “Tony.” I had to sit on myself not to do that when I wrote the original posting, because various people I know know him and call him Tony. He and I have never met or corresponded.

    This is a great and very thoughtful posting; I will have longer comments on my blog. I had been thinking about one of the issues you raise in a different context and from a different angle – concert dress and the differences between how male and female soloists present themselves.

  4. Lisa Hirsch

    Oh – and I will add belatedly that when I see myself referred to in a blog as Hirsch or Ms. Hirsch, my reaction is “Good grief, just call me Lisa.” Maybe I’ve been living in California too long.

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  6. R. D. Lane

    I like all-men orchestras, thank you very much; and I would never attend or watch a professional football game that had a woman coach no matter how good they are. And I don’t like male conductors not wearing the older style tux with tails and a bow tie. And I don’t care what names you want to call me … I am 72 years old and I am set in my ways and if they are wrong, too bad.

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