Tag: gender gap

Alone At The Top: What Conductor Susanna Malkki’s Success Means—and What It Doesn’t

Conductor Susanna Malkki

Conductor Susanna Malkki
Photo by Simon Fowler

Watching Susanna Malkki conduct the Chicago Symphony was moving in an unexpected way. It was moving in the way that I imagine the Northern Lights might be moving, or the Great Pyramids. It was like seeing a natural phenomenon that I had heard about, read about, but never actually observed in the flesh. My God, I thought to myself, like a pilgrim who has finally arrived at the holy site. So this is what it’s like!

I have been a musician for twenty years, and before Tuesday night, I had never seen a woman conduct a great orchestra. And unless you count the string teachers in my public schools, I’ve never worked with a woman conductor myself.

So I suppose it makes sense that every time Malkki presided over a roaring crescendo during Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony concert, I felt a rush of unexpected emotion. Because, for all my years of playing, the sound of an orchestral crescendo has been associated with the sight of a man’s body on the podium. For my entire life, the sounds of timpani and brass seemed to be born exclusively from the waving of a man’s arms. But I now have living proof that this isn’t the case. And it matters.

Malkki’s program—Debussy’s La Mer, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, Thomas Adès’s …and all shall be well, and Sibelius’s suite from The Tempest —was one of the most interesting of the CSO’s season. The young couple next to me were excited, enthusiastic, and fully engrossed in the concert.
“She’s only the second female conductor I’ve ever seen,” the woman said after the Sibelius.
“Yeah. Besides Marin Alsop,” her date replied. There was a long pause.

“That’s so cool, though,” the girl said in a hushed and excited voice. “She’s really good.”
Malkki is really good. She has an alert, intense podium presence and a clear and lively technique. For much of the program, her touch was perceptibly light; her years in the collaborative environment of Ensemble Intercontemporain were evident. Malkki allowed the orchestra to play. They seemed relaxed; principal string players often smiled at her as she cued their entrances. The Stravinsky in particular was transparent and enthralling: there was a sense of absolute assurance between Malkki, Josefewicz, and the orchestra.

At intermission, I circulated in the lobby, hoping to overhear an interesting comment or two about Malkki. But her presence felt like a massively successful non-event. Response to the Stravinsky was overwhelmingly positive. People were drinking champagne. A woman was on the podium, and everything seemed to be in order.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor
Photo by Todd Rosenberg

It is a testament to Malkki’s prodigious gifts that Chicago’s music critics wholeheartedly embraced her return to the CSO stage as they did her 2011 debut: with barely a whisper about her gender. Their focus, rightly so, was on the clarity and focus of her interpretive work and leadership. But I have no interest in pretending to be gender-blind. Malkki is unquestionably a master; she is also, statistically, a unicorn. In 2011, she became the first woman ever to conduct at La Scala; she remains the only woman who has. There is no sense in attempting to remove Malkki from her context: she is a brilliant musician who has rightly risen to the top of her profession, in spite of obstacles placed in her way by classical music’s persistent gender problems.
Alex Ross recently wrote about Marin Alsop breaking another glass ceiling at the Proms, and his welcome attention to the issue generated some thoughtful responses. But I find that the discussion over female conductors is often rife with false dichotomies. While one person despairs over how few female conductors there are, another protests that there are plenty and shows off a long list of them. While one person can point to misogynistic comments and despair, someone else can point to artists like Malkki and brightly insist that times are changing.

We could go down a rabbit hole of cultural differences, too. Why is it, for example, that fully half of the recently accepted conducting students at the Sibelius Conservatory in Malkki’s native Finland are women, while female doctoral conducting students remain a stubbornly small minority in the US?

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as a society, and as a musical community, is to examine the causes of women’s low participation in conducting. Alex Ross’s most astute recent observation is that “the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power.” At the moment, conducting and maleness seem almost inextricably linked. They aren’t, of course—but the deep historical and sociological bond means that women conductors may face subtle and complex challenges in rising to the top of the field.

As recent research out of Rutgers University shows, when women succeed at “male gender-typed tasks,” they are usually met with negative reactions that adversely affect their careers. We must also remember that there’s a likability tax paid by every successful professional woman. And in a music director role–on the podium, in the press, and at meetings with donors—likability is an extremely important factor.

Another major factor is the difficulty that female aspiring conductors may have finding role models and mentors who resemble them. A study from the University of Toronto, titled “Someone like me can be successful,” indicates that young women’s self-assessment is deeply impacted by the presence of a successful female role model. Without accessible role models, many young women literally cannot envision a life in conducting; for this reason, many talented potential conductors may never even consider the possibility.

Once a woman finally gets to the podium—no small thing in itself—we would also do well to consider sociologist Rosabeth Kanter’s research on tokenism in professional life. While the word “token” has some negative associations, Kanter used the term to refer to a minority that comprises less than fifteen percent of a workplace. Kanter’s work indicates that if you are a token minority—which women in high-level conducting absolutely are—you will endure three difficult conditions. First, you will be subject to unusually high scrutiny; second, you will have stereotypes attributed to you; third, your individuality will be compromised, and you will be viewed as a representative of the minority group.

So when the thought popped into my head that I didn’t care for the jacket Malkki was wearing, that was a perfect example of unusually high scrutiny. When we posit that female conductors are more collaborative and gentle than their male counterparts, this is a perfect example of attributing stereotypes to them. And when we conflate Malkki, Alsop, and Falletta—or even when we praise Malkki as evidence that “women can do this”—this is a perfect example of compromising the individuality of each artist, forcing them instead to Represent Women, to carry the mantle of Woman Conductor.

So in this thorny and difficult context—which we must acknowledge and actively fight against, in order to make things better—the example of Susanna Malkki is indeed a bright light.

This past Tuesday night she became, for me and probably for hundreds of other women in the audience, a role model. She steered expertly through the dangerous waters of programming, demeanor, wardrobe. She illuminated the music. She made us feel that success was possible for “someone like us.” And then, I imagine, she boarded a plane and flipped open a score, on her way to do it all again somewhere else.

Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair
First of all, if you haven’t yet read Ellen McSweeney’s excellent article from yesterday, take the opportunity now. Thanks to Ellen and composer Reena Esmail, I decided pick up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and even though I’m just part way through chapter three, I see quite a bit in those pages not only of myself, but of so many other women around me. The information is not necessarily new, but it is presented in a clear, succinct manner that paints a remarkably accurate picture of the working world from a female perspective.

Conveniently, over the past couple of months I have also been connecting with a greater number of female composers than usual, partly by chance. Time and time again I feel both overwhelmed with pride for the amazingly talented women making music in our world today, and fantastically frustrated by the lack of recognition many of them receive. Some of that frustration, as Sandberg’s book neatly outlines, is due not only to external social structures, but also to the internal challenges that many women face on a daily basis. These matters are all so complex, and there are so many wide-ranging issues in play, that it is going to take a long time and a lot of people of both genders to continue improving the landscape for female composers and musicians.

The thought that keeps popping into my head as a crucial element in this tangled web is that women are not culturally encouraged to ask for things. In a professional setting, men, in general, tend to have little problem asking for whatever they want and/or need, while not only do women tend not to ask for things, they sometimes are not aware of all the things they could ask for, and as a result, don’t. To pile onto that, the very act of a woman asking for something is often perceived differently than the same request made by a man. This falls in line with Sandberg’s “likeability factor,” which points out that success for a woman causes her to be perceived as less likeable (the opposite is true for men). It’s perfectly natural for a man to ask for a thing, while if a woman asks for the same thing in the same way, she is more likely to be seen as self-serving, which counts as points against her. This seeps into myriad nooks and crannies of life, from negotiating salaries and composition commissions to navigating daily schedules, work habits, and personal relationships. A colleague recently told a story of a man who offered a position in his company to a woman. The man said, “I would have happily given her $X more if she had just asked for it.” It is notable that the woman did not negotiate, even when negotiation for job salaries is a cultural norm in the business world. However, had she negotiated her salary, it might have affected her employer’s opinion of her in a possibly negative way. It’s a messy, vicious cycle that needs to be broken somehow.

In the music world, I see and experience other women not asking for stuff all the time. And believe me, I get it—asking for things can be truly difficult. Often more than one try is necessary—that is true for anyone of either gender—when submitting grant applications or making proposals for creative opportunities. I have experienced situations in which asking for something for myself was almost physically painful! But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Recently I challenged myself to do some asking of a sort that I normally would not, and while it was by no means easy to do, the answers turned out to be yes! In fact there were responses like, “Oh! Sure, we can do that. Thank you for asking!” And really, even if the answers had been no, would that have been so bad? I don’t think so. Wonders can be wrought through the power of asking nicely.

Last week I attended a concert that included a work by a female composer whom I know personally, and whose music I think is exceptional. The ensemble had issued the invitation. When the composer and I spoke in person at the concert, this is how our conversation started:

Composer: “I’m so glad to see you! I was hoping you would come.”
Me: “Oh! You know you could have contacted me directly, right?”
Composer: “It’s just that I hate to impose….”

This sort of thing happens a lot. But I cannot think of even one instance in which a male composer has considered contacting me directly to attend a performance to be “imposing.” The guys are, frankly, all up in my face 24/7.

Similarly, the lack of asking here at NewMusicBox is very pronounced. Despite the fact that we are crystal clear about wanting to hear music by composers of both genders, are we flooded with CDs and emails from female composers? Quite the opposite. I would guess that over 90% of the recordings we receive contain music by male composers. In the almost three years that I have worked here, I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of female composers who have contacted me specifically asking for, well, anything that pertains to the music they are creating. And we are not the only organization for which this is the case. Several record labels have mentioned that they wish they received more CD proposals from women.

I honestly think that if every female artist—or every female of any profession—asked for one specific thing that they really wanted or needed, this could begin to shift our culture in a pronounced way. Sandberg writes in her book about the need for women to “sit at the table,” and the act of asking for something is an important way to pull up a chair and be part of the conversation.

What will you ask for?
Who will you ask?
When will you ask for it?
What are you waiting for?

The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation

female and male figures
I once had a conversation with my violin teacher that I will never forget. I was at a crucial stage in my development as a musician. The path to a career as a professional violinist was becoming clearer to me, and my passion and talent were becoming more evident. I was in my lesson; I had a stack of music on the stand and several important auditions coming up. Turning to my teacher and mentor, I wondered aloud how viable this path was really going to be.

“I would advise you to think very, very carefully about all of this,” she said grimly. “Being a musician and having a family is extremely difficult.”

I was fourteen.

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment.

In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.
In graduate school, I worked on the Glazunov concerto. In front of my entire studio, my teacher said: “Please forgive me for saying this, but you are playing it like a woman.” When I played the passage better, she made it clear I had achieved the goal. Although I remained a woman, I had played it like a man.


Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, explores the question of why more women have not risen to the top echelons of management and leadership in any industry. Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and has begun to use her enormous platform to sound the alarm about women’s roles in the workplace. In Lean In, she cites the dismal number of female heads of state, members of parliament, and chief executives worldwide, and launches into an in-depth discussion of women’s internal barriers to success. Sandberg acknowledges the height of society’s external barriers—such as lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that collides headfirst with the biological clock—but her focus is on the more personal, internal blocks to success. What self-limiting attitudes has our sexist society created in women, and how are these attitudes holding them back from the kind of career success and freedom that men enjoy?

At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. Never mind that hardly any women conduct, and leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles. In just a couple of generations, it does seem like the gender balance of American symphony orchestras has shifted dramatically—a shift we can confirm simply counting the number of women in orchestral chairs all over the country.

But in the art music world outside of the American orchestral scene, it’s harder to quantify how far women have or haven’t come. This is a more informal economy; we can’t count female full-time hires because there are hardly any full-time jobs. Women “rising to the top” in the contemporary music scene means coming into a position of social, cultural, and aesthetic influence. That’s a kind of success that’s harder to identify. Are women equally represented among prominent art-shapers and cultural decision makers? Are they curating the most cutting-edge concert series in town? Are women the people whose concert reviews you eagerly anticipate? These questions are harder to answer with any certainty, but in what follows, I’ll argue that—at least in Chicago—the answer is no.
Every year, the Chicago Tribune chooses “Chicagoans of the Year” in music, often praising these artists for work that is visionary and groundbreaking. Since 2008—as far back as the online archive goes—all nine of the honorees (George LePauw, Lupe Fiasco, Mark George, Bruce Iglauer, Paulinho Garcia, Syl Johnson, Riccardo Mutti, Mike Orlove, and Local H) have been men. The writers selecting these visionaries have also been exclusively men: Howard Reich, John von Rhein, and Greg Kot.
Chicago magazine has a similar honor; since 2006, all three of its honorees (Ken Vandermark, Ramsey Lewis, and Kimo Williams) have been men.
A recent Chicago magazine new music “power list”, written by a man, included seven men and one woman. The men on the list are men I admire and know well: artistically adventurous, socially connected, innovative, and ambitious. The only woman on the list, Mei-Ann Chen, is a conductor pursuing a fairly traditional career anchored by a major Chicago orchestral institution. The type of “power” articulated in Chen’s career has very little overlap with the kind of self-made creative power shared by honorees Marcos Balter, George LePauw, and the Spektral Quartet. Chen’s inclusion seemed out of place—but sadly, it was the first time since at least 2006 that Chicago magazine has bestowed this kind of honor on any woman musician.

Most of the new and influential creative organizations in our scene—the organizations whose creativity and dynamism will form the heart of our cultural and professional lives—are run by men. To give a small sampling: the Spektral Quartet is all men; ChicagoMusic.org is run by Paul Giallorenzo; all six of the staff at Elastic Arts are men; exciting new venue Constellation is run by Mike Reed. Beethoven Festival, which has been honored as one of the most exciting new cultural initiatives in Chicago, has six musicians on its executive committee. Only one is a woman, and she is in charge of educational outreach. At the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which is changing the face of our city with its investment in contemporary music, all four of the wonderful people in charge of cultural programming are men. I say this not to shame anyone for being a man, working with men, or for being successful. I simply say this to point out that among the most exciting, successful, and innovative new projects happening in Chicago, women’s participation is not equal.

Among Chicago’s contemporary music ensembles, 63% of the performers are men.[1] Among music writers with a regular byline in a major publication or radio outlet, 82% are men.[2] At Pitchfork Media, a Chicago-based publication which is increasingly paying attention to “indie-classical” artists, only 6 of the 40 staff writers are women. (Though two-thirds of the interns are female.)

Lest it seem that I am pointing the finger at other organizations, let’s look at one of my own. During a recent meeting of Parlour Tapes—a new Chicago record label I’m part of—we were assembling the list of contributors to our October compilation release. As we surveyed the list, we realized that more than 75 percent of the invited artists were men. We didn’t intend our first release to have such a gender imbalance—it had just happened.  How could our team—which includes two women and two men—have missed that?

As I reflect on the problems mentioned above, I think of those women in our community who are highly visible leaders. Melissa Snoza of Fifth House Ensemble was a huge role model for me when I founded my own ensemble. Composer and aperiodic director Nomi Epstein consistently innovates. And of course, Chicago continues to feel the profound influence of MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase, years after she moved to New York. However, we should view these women not as proof that “there’s no problem here,” but as having achieved success in spite of the challenges they face. As Limor Tomer put it at the Chamber Music America conference in New York this year, “In the phrase ‘old boys network,’ the operative word is network.” In contemporary music, as in most fields, networking is power. Despite admirable achievements from outstanding musical women in Chicago, the fact remains that women often aren’t making it onto “power lists”—whether informal or in print. The men in our community have been far more successful in amassing social capital and using it to advance their musical careers.
Why is this the case? Why aren’t more women being recognized for visionary artistic leadership in Chicago’s contemporary music scene—and why aren’t more women providing that visionary leadership in the first place?

As it turns out, the research Sandberg discusses in Lean In can help us answer these questions.

1. Women musicians, like all women, pay a “likability tax” when they are self-promoting, assertive, and successful.

One of the most important sociological facts Sandberg emphasizes is that success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. A strong body of research demonstrates that if a man has an ambitious, thriving, and successful career, his peers will find him more likable; if a woman has the same kind of career, her peers will find her less likable. Two studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology called this the “penalty for success.” Women artists pay a social tax for their professional achievements that men do not. Women musicians cannot promote themselves in the same way that men do without facing negative consequences in the way they are perceived personally. This is particularly problematic for performing artists, who must cultivate personal connections and an enthusiastic fan base (read: people who like you) in order to survive. Women find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that they might shy away from career developments that would make them, say, Chicagoan of the Year in Music—or that when it comes time to choose, journalists don’t find those women leaders quite as appealing.

2. Women musicians are less likely to embark on high visibility projects, take professional risks, and conceive of themselves as leaders—which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in developing entrepreneurial careers.

Research in “gender differences in task choice” has demonstrated that, when given the opportunity to choose a more challenging or risky task at work, women were far less likely than men to choose that path. Other research has demonstrated that millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as leaders and visionaries. This does not mean, of course, that women cannot take risks and establish visionary careers; it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.


3. Women consistently underestimate their own talents and abilities, leaving them at a disadvantage in the essential realm of self-promotion.

Research in Lean In indicates that even when women and men perform equally well as surgeons, the women are likely to believe that they have performed worse. When it comes time for women artists to announce a new commission, upload a new performance video, or send a press release, how might this chronic devaluation of their abilities affect them?

4. When choosing who to hire, men are significantly more likely to choose a man.

The consulting firm Innovisor found this to be true in more than twenty countries. So in a field where most composers, conductors, curators, music writers, and “visionaries” are men, the situation of a mostly male circle of influencers is likely to perpetuate itself.

5. Similarly, senior men are more likely to mentor young men than young women.

Sandberg, drawing on research from the Journal of Vocational Behavior, notes that “mentoring relationships often form when the younger person reminds the more senior person of themselves. This means that men will often gravitate towards sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Since there are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues to flourish.” This means that fewer women musicians are being sponsored and mentored by influential, senior men in their field.

Having a mentor relationship misperceived as a romantic or sexual relationship is also a problem. Research in The Sponsor Effect shows that 64% of high-ranking executive men are hesitant to have a meeting with a more junior woman, and half of junior women avoided close contact with senior men. This means that in crucial social settings, like post-concert beers or a brainstorming coffee date, young women are less comfortable seeking out mentorship that could yield enormous professional dividends in the early stages of their careers.

6. Women are taught from an early age to worry about whether they can have children and a career.

Five years before I had my first real boyfriend, my violin teacher was talking to me about balancing work and family life. Let’s face it: this seed of anxiety was never planted in the minds of my male colleagues. Sandberg cites research which shows that in two Princeton University studies—one conducted in 1974, one in 2006—there was a dramatic disparity between male and female students’ perceptions of whether work and family would be a conflict for them. In both studies, twice as many women foresaw this as a problem. This inner worry, Sandberg claims, means that women who want families “lean back” from their careers rather than leaning in.


I bring these findings, and my own experiences and observations, forward for three very important reasons:

1. I believe that women rarely get the opportunity to discuss the psychological and emotional limitations that gender socialization has created within them. While I know some of Sandberg’s research is deeply discouraging, my hope is that it can also serve as a point of inspiration. I hope that some of my female peers will recognize themselves in these words, and be encouraged to push through inevitable feelings of self-doubt and fear. My hope is that every woman can become the composer, performer, writer, curator, and art-shaper that she dreams of becoming.

2. I believe that many men are not aware of these issues, because their life experience has not required them to be. Men may feel helpless when learning about this research; they may find themselves feeling defensive or skeptical. But I also believe that my male colleagues care deeply about equality and want a thriving musical ecosystem where all voices can be heard. By examining their personal lives, their beliefs, and the practices of their ensembles and organizations, I believe men can become essential allies in acknowledging women’s unique challenges and encouraging them to live up to their full potential.

3. As a woman writer and musician who has benefited from the encouragement and mentorship of countless men and women in the Chicago scene, I am in a position of relative privilege. As I read Lean In and realized how powerful its findings are, I came to feel that I had a responsibility to share what I had learned. My hope is that this article will generate a discussion that acknowledges that we have a problem—and that we all share the responsibility to make it better.

1.Ensembles counted: Palomar, Anubis Quartet, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Q, Dal Niente, eighth blackbird, Fifth House, Fulcrum Point, Gaudete Brass, ICE, Maverick, Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, and Fonema Consort.

2.Media outlets included: Tribune, Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Reader.