The musical gender gap

PRS for Music Foundation’s Vanessa Reed wades into the classical music storm surrounding female conductors & creators

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 9 Sep 2013
  • min read
Last week, the highly acclaimed conductor Vasily Petrenko, made some astonishing statements which fueled an intense debate about sexism in classical music. He claimed that ‘orchestras react better when they have a man in front of them, that 'women with families can’t be as dedicated as the business requires' and that ‘a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things’.

At the end of that same week, history was made at the Royal Albert Hall in London when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the last night of the BBC Proms, now in its 119th season. This has to be the ultimate riposte to Petrenko’s claim.Anyone who watched the Prom, whether in the hall or on BBC 4, will have seen the immensely talented Alsop’s unfussy command, poise and musicality matched by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s excellent performance, concentration and utmost respect for her leadership.

I’m not going to attempt to analyse what Petrenko’s statement might mean for him and his future career (already discussed in the press). However, I am interested in considering how the current state-of-play in the conducting world relates to other prejudices and imbalances within the music industry, like the low numbers of women taking up songwriting or composing as a career. This is a direct concern of PRS for Music Foundation which was set up to support songwriters and composers in the UK.

So let’s start with the numbers:

In the past 20 years, the only British women conductors to take leading posts in the UK are Sian Edwards (English National Opera in the nineties) and Jane Glover (Glyndebourne Touring Opera and London Mozart Players 1984-91).  Cuban born Odaline de la Martinez has her own ensemble and became the first woman to conduct a prom in 1984. In this year’s edition of the BBC Proms, just seven percent of the conductors were women.

In composition, women make up only 13 percent of the composers and songwriters registered with PRS for Music. Of the 31 musical works by living composers at this year’s Proms, 16 percent were written by women.

These statistics inevitably encourage unhelpful generalisations. Some claim that women aren’t conducting or writing music because they’re simply not very good at it and it’s ‘not in their genes’. Petrenko’s statements about women conductors included unexpected variations on this theme and were pretty extreme. However, anyone working in the music industry will have heard someone suggest that women simply aren’t as good at writing songs as men.

Even classical journalist Fiona Maddocks, who is a big supporter of the UK’s talented women composers and conductors, asked: ‘Where is the possessed, wild-eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven who battled on… to create timeless masterpieces? The answer, and I run for cover even raising the matter, may lie in biology or even psychopathology.’

My concern is that until we publically reject this theory, women will continue be influenced by it (whether subliminally or otherwise), deciding to rule themselves out of what seems to be unchartered – ‘unnatural?’ - territory for women. The widespread outrage that Petrenko’s statement has provoked is at least useful in this respect.

The other problem with low representation is that the next generation of talented women still has a very limited number and range of role models compared to their male counterparts. The world of conducting is particularly problematic in this respect, with Marin Alsop being a lonely figurehead in terms of international profile. In composition, there’s a strong generation of young women whose voices are now being heard (including Anna Clyde whose work was performed in Last Night of the Proms). However, dictated partly by history, only seven of the total 130 pieces of classical music performed at the Proms were by women.

Pop music undoubtedly has more role models for younger women than any other area of the music industry – with Jessie J, Adele, Florence Welch and Emeli Sande making the headlines as top earning, global successes. But if you look at the industry as a whole, what happened to the girl band? And how many times do you see a gig featuring a group of men on stage compared to one which features any women at all? My recent experience of attending seven randomly selected gigs at Berlin Music Week is a case in point. Only one band - Braids from Montreal - featured a woman.

So what can we do to change a situation which statistics suggest is here to stay, even in the 21st century?

For me, apart from the fact that we need more women in positions of authority in the establishments and parts of the industry that can influence real change, there are two actions that different organisations and individuals can help with: we need to encourage more women to believe in their potential to make a career in music and we need those who’ve succeeded to be part of this process.

As a relatively small funder with a clear focus on supporting new music, PRS for Music Foundation has taken a few pragmatic steps which focus on these actions – encouraging women to come forward for support which could help them develop their career.

This began via conversations with Birds Eye View – an inspirational festival for women filmmakers established in response to the low number of women filmmakers in the UK. With Birds Eye View, we organised a panel discussion to explore the potential barriers for women taking up a career in new music. We followed this up by launching a new fund called Women Make Music which aims to raise awareness of the gender gap, encourage role models for future generations and increase the profile of women who are creating music in the UK.

Of course, this small step won’t change the status quo alone. However, we do know that its unapologetic call-out to women enabled us to connect with hundreds of female composers and songwriters who had never applied to us before. Those selected for support ranged from Sally Beamish, Charlotte Bray, Jennifer Walshe and Deidre Gribbin to pop artists like Serafina Steer, Mara Carlisle and Julie Campbell.

We hope that these talented women will inspire others to come forward and think seriously about music as a career. We hope that our list of Women Make Music recipients will also be prepared to join our campaign as ambassadors and supporters for future generations.

And this brings me to my final point. There are many successful women who resist being singled out for their gender and in a perfect world talent would be the only thing we talk about. But, if we have living proof that women can be excellent conductors, composers or songwriters and we know that few are putting themselves forward, why wouldn’t we speak out about making music across all genres more representative of the world we live in?

Marin Alsop is again leading the way on this. To encourage and promote the next generations of women conductors, Alsop established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship. And, on Saturday evening, in her speech from the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, she made a subtle reference to Petrenko’s ‘girls can’t do it’ claim. More importantly, she used her moment on the podium, in front of a worldwide audience of more than 40 million people, to encourage women to believe in themselves, follow their passion and not to give up.

This was an extremely important moment in the history of classical music. Even if, as Alsop said herself, it’s shocking that ‘firsts for women”’ still exist in 2013.

The next deadline for PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music Fund is 23rd September. See

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