Tag: statistics

The Long-Term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming

Special thanks to Neil Banas for creating the interactive model below.

“We need to be patient.”

“The music will find its home.”

“Change is coming.”

“But it’s not about fame, it’s about doing the work you love!”

“Surely you don’t want people playing your music just because you’re a woman?”

“Your time will come. Her time will come. Our time will come.”

“The best music will rise to the surface!”

“Things are getting better!”

“We’re discovering it now!”

“Just be patient!”

Over the years, whenever the under-representation of women composers is discussed, I keep hearing variations on the themes above. Whether these phrases come from those wanting to encourage women composers, those downplaying the existence of sexism, or indeed from women composers ourselves trying to look on the bright side, the underlying message is, “Yes, it’s frustrating, but we just have to wait. We’ll get our turn. Things will be okay!” And on the one hand, sure, I’ll wait (while also being stubborn and persistent and working for change). I’m hardly going to give up composing because there may be a statistical likelihood that my pieces will be performed a bit less frequently than those of a male peer! But on the other hand, let’s not pretend this is reasonable or that enforced waiting doesn’t have real, long-term consequences: real consequences in terms of opportunity, real artistic consequences, real financial consequences – and ultimately, real consequences for who gets to continue being a composer.

A complicated lineage leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check.

The longer I trace my own career and observe the careers of students, friends, and colleagues, the more I see the complicated lineage that leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check. Piece A is premiered, then performed six more times by people who heard the premiere, one of whom commissions piece B, which he performs and sets as repertoire for his students, who go on to perform it professionally. After a couple of years, the royalties add up to enough to pay for a couple of months off teaching, during which time one writes piece C… Or piece D is commissioned by an orchestra, which premieres it. The recording is sent to a competition and wins, resulting in the commission and premiere of piece E. Another orchestra decides to perform pieces D and E and invites the composer to be composer-in-residence, which puts the composer in touch with a donor who is able to fund the creation of piece F… Over the years each piece develops its own trajectory, almost always something completely unpredictable at the outset. One finds new opportunities, new ideas, and new collaborative partners in the most unexpected of ways. But what happens if piece A is never performed? Or is performed four years late? What happens if the performer assigns a different piece to his students? What happens if piece D is never commissioned? What happens if the composer residency doesn’t take place?

It doesn’t take much of an initial difference in the rates of commissioning, performing, or promoting works by women for the cumulative effect over the years to become striking. Let’s say (and I think this is a generous overestimate) that a woman composer’s works are 95% as likely to be performed as those of a man composer of equivalent accomplishment, and that she is 5% less likely to be commissioned than her male colleague. In order to illustrate the knock-on effects of what initially seem like small differentials, we’ve made a handy, interactive computer simulation of how these play out in the long term.


Matthew writes new piece(s) without a commission each year.

Each of his works has a % chance of being performed the year it is written. Each time it gets performed, it has the same chance of being performed the following year.

He receives a new commission every performances (although he never composes more than pieces per year).

He receives an average of $ in royalties for each performance, and an average of $ for each commission.

Mathilda has equal experience as a composer and manages her career in the same way, except that for her, the chances of a performance are %, not %, and she receives a new commission after every performances, not .

After years, Matthew has about performances per year, and Mathilda has about (% as many). They have composed and works, respectively, of which % and % were commissioned. At this point in his career, Matthew earns $ from composing in a typical year, while Mathilda earns $.

The interactive model above was created expressly for this article by Neil Banas.
Drag mouse/finger to the left or right on the blue text to decrease or increase the number.

As you can see, what seem like small differences in the rate of performance or recognition compound yearly and can have an enormous impact over the course of a career.

Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent.

Writing about our careers—and particularly about the way outside factors may or may not influence them—can make us feel very vulnerable. If we’re not doing as well as we had hoped, and we admit it, someone may jump in and say, “Well, maybe your music just isn’t good enough,” or—and I’m genuinely surprised by how often I still hear this—“I’m not sexist, but there’s just not very much good music by women.” If we are doing as well as or better than we had hoped, will celebrating our successes seem boastful? Will we hurt our friends who are doing less well? Will we “jinx” things?[1] Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent. We may think of contentedness with our careers as the ultimate goal, irrelevant, or a sign of laziness. But we need this kind of scrutiny if we’re going to figure out where inequities still exist and begin to address them. If the second edition of an anthology proudly proclaims that it now includes works by women composers, but the percentage of works by women is smaller than the percentage of women who are composers, then the anthology is still part of the problem. Or if I’m teaching a class on, say, contemporary Canadian music, and 20% of the pieces I include are by women, but 24% of contemporary Canadian composers are women, then I’m part of the problem.[2]

In any case, we don’t have to look at this individually. Perhaps my career has been magically untouched by sexism: perhaps yours has been, too. The fact remains that sexism, both conscious and unconscious, affects most women’s careers. In the UK, 51% of the population is female, 36% of composition students are women, 21% of commissions go to women, and only 7% of orchestral commissions – which tend to be the most prestigious and highest paid – go to women. In the US, 22% of music theory/composition students are women, but only 14% of major orchestra commissions go to women. Twenty-four percent of living composers who belong to the Canadian Music Centre are women, but women make up only 11% of the music composition faculty working in Canada.[3]

Composing is a hard profession, but let’s make sure we’re not making it even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile.

I’m absolutely not suggesting here that middle class, white, cis male composers have it too easy. Composing is a hard profession: even those with the most advantages may struggle to find non-exploitive work situations, social recognition, and financial stability. I want to live in a world where the arts are valued, and things are better for all of us! But in this already hard field, let’s make sure we’re not making things even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile of a composer. Women are of course not the only composers who get left out: the farther one deviates from the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, European, middle/upper-class, male composer image that remains so dominant in the North American and European new music worlds, the more likely their works are to be overlooked. The more we recognize the impact of even seemingly small decisions about what to program, who to commission, and who to recognize, the more we can work to change things.

So, yes, here I am, and here we are, being patient. I’m not going away! But no, I will not be patient about having to be patient!


1. I won’t say here how I feel about my own career, but if you’re curious, you can read this interview on pianist Frances Wilson’s fabulous blog Meet the Artist.

2. One can argue that women composers should be represented in proportion to the percentage of women who are (known to be) composers in a given place or time or period, or that music by women should always be 50%, or somewhere in between, but that lies outside the scope of this article. I think we can all agree that equitable programming would, at a minimum, include works by women in the same proportion as composers who are women, so I’ll stick to those figures for the purposes of this article.

3. I counted up the number of women composition professors in the first 20 Canadian music departments that came to mind. It’s possible the percentage is a bit higher or lower, but I doubt it’s off by more than a point to two.

By the Numbers

Last week, the website “Vida: Women in Literature” published their 2011 count. This series of pie charts visualizes the ratio of female to male representatives in various categories—including published fiction, book reviewers, authors reviewed—at some of the most prestigious periodicals in the fiction world. As an example, The New York Review of Books, considered one of the most important publishers of criticism on contemporary works, contracted with female reviewers 21% of the time (roughly four male reviewers for every female) in order to talk about books whose authors skewed 82% male. The New Yorker performed marginally more equally, with 28% of their articles generated by female authors and exactly one third of their “Briefly Noted” reviews devoted to works by women. A quick scroll through the statistics shows most publications representing women in the 20–30% range, with Granta standing alone as the only publication who published more women than men overall. For more context on these numbers, I recommend Danielle Pafunda’s “The Trouble with Rationalizing the Numbers Trouble”.

I’ve been following the online reaction to these numbers with interest. Writers from all walks of life quickly condemned the ratios, and many of the editors promised to look into improving the equality of gender representation within their pages. Although there are obviously many people who defend current practices, the literary community appears to have reached an overall consensus that this sort of inequality is wrong and should be corrected.

The main thing that struck me about these numbers is this: If they had been generated by concert presenting organizations they would have seemed exceptionally progressive.

I co-founded the ensemble League of the Unsound Sound, which has presented four different concert programs over two seasons. Since I try to be aware of gender inclusivity, as part of our programming, I took care to ensure that each concert included at least one female composer. As our ratio of 5 works by female composers compared to 13 by male composers shows (when considering specific pieces as represented on distinct concert programs—repeated programs at multiple venues are considered as a single concert), the literary community would have considered my efforts to be an abject failure.

LotUS Programming

I wondered how LotUS compared to other new music ensembles, and so I unscientifically perused the websites of some of my favorite groups. I want to emphasize that I chose the following groups because I think they are all wonderful and also because their sites made the data easily available. Each of these ensembles is comprised of amazing performers who I would pay to hear perform any repertoire, and I believe that they are among the most progressive programmers in the U.S. today. In short, I only included artists for whom I have the utmost respect and who I believe care about working towards gender equality in their programming. If I took the time to check other groups, I strongly believe that the ones listed below would remain among the most equal in their gender distribution. This makes the data that much less encouraging.

Before continuing, I need to stop for an important caveat. The Vida site spends months compiling and checking their statistics. They look at the same publications over years. Their charts are created with a scientific rigor that I am not trying to equal. I compiled the data for the charts and ratios below by quickly perusing the websites of some of my favorite organizations. I might have miscounted. Please consider the following as rough estimates only.

Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, Bang on a Can has long been on the vanguard of new music, and so I was not surprised that the listed ensemble repertoire for the Bang on a Can All Stars displayed the most equality among the ones I counted. Their ratio of 13 works by women compared to 47 by men composers counts as the highest percentage of women among those surveyed.

BOAC Repetoire

Other of my favorite new music groups all showed gender distributions with more than four men represented for every woman. The incredible JACK Quartet lists 100 pieces in their repertoire, of which 12 are by women. According to their website, Eighth Blackbird has been responsible for the creation of an astonishing 100 commissions, of which 18 are by women. Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, prints event listings that show that they have programmed 75 works this concert season (when considered like LotUS so distinct concert programs are counted separately but the same set of pieces performed in multiple venues is only counted once), 7 of which are by women. The current repertoire list of Alarm Will Sound names 65 different works, of which four are exclusively by women, one is an arrangement of the all-female band the Shaggs, and one is a John Lennon/Yoko Ono collaboration.

JACK Quartet Repetoire

Eighth Blackbird Commissions

Ensemble Dal Niente stats

AWS Repetoire

As I state above, I chose these groups because I imagine that they are among the most progressive programmers working today (and also because their websites are organized so that this data is easily available). I believe each of the ensembles I cite above has artistic directors that keep the goal of gender equity in mind when they determine their concert repertoire. It seems that we still have to travel far in order to achieve true equality.