Where are all the female conductors?

A female winner of a BBC conducting competition highlights the lack of women on the podium.


Kate Harding
September 15, 2008 5:51PM (UTC)

Last week, comic Sue Perkins was declared the winner of the BBC's "Maestro" reality show, in which famous amateurs competed for the chance to conduct the BBC concert orchestra for a day. Though the competition bore a closer resemblance to "Dancing With the Stars" than actual hiring practices in the classical music world, Perkins' win did highlight an issue with the latter: Despite women's advances in other artistic disciplines, female conductors are still incredibly rare. A year ago, Marin Alsop became the first female music director of a major U.S. orchestra, and Ewa Strusinska became the first female assistant conductor in the U.K. earlier this year. Meanwhile, "all of the principal conductors of the London, Royal and BBC Philharmonic orchestras are men and there is a distinct lack of female baton-wielding super stars."

Everyone interviewed for the BBC article, including Alsop herself, seems to want to put a positive spin on things: Yes, the sexism has been awful in the past, but things are improving! It's just taking a while! Cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht points out that "25 years ago there were no female presenters on the news either," and Natalia Luis-Bassa, principal conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra, speculates that "in 10 to 15 years things will even out." Given that most conductors don't hit their stride until late middle age, it is understandable that few women have reached their full potential on the podium yet. Only 30-odd years ago, New York Philharmonic manager Helen Thompson was saying things like, "Women can't conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men's music." Still, it's likely to take more than a couple of token appointments and a female reality-show winner to effect real change. As Lebrecht notes, sexism in the industry "is a function of society and not of music."

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Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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