Why Are There So Few Female Orchestra Conductors?

Sue Perkins and conductor

Sue Perkins, left, strays into a man's world


The Proms ends this weekend, and among those taking up the baton will be comedian Sue Perkins, winner of the BBC TV conducting contest Maestro. It's unusual for a woman to conduct an orchestra. Why?

Standing on a platform under the spotlights, with eager eyes watching from all sides, the conductor's podium can be an intimidating place. Whoever holds the baton has complete control over the orchestra of highly talented musicians.

On Tuesday comedian Sue Perkins wowed the public to win the final of the BBC Maestro conducting competition. But she was performing on a platform that is normally a male domain. Given the prevalence of women in positions of influence in the arts, why is this?

Classical music is no stranger to sexism. When, in 2000, conductor Leonard Slatkin made remarks about female musicians' appearances - comments which he later said had been misconstrued - the Guardian newspaper said the "brouhaha hides the thornier issue of sexism in the male-dominated world of classical music".


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The paper quoted two unnamed musicians as saying discrimination was "alive and kicking" in British orchestras.

In the past, the musical establishment has claimed that female conductors simply lack the gravitas to lead an orchestra. Others have suggested that women don't fully understand music written by men.

"Women can't conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men's music," proclaimed Helen Thompson in the 1970s, then manager of the New York Philharmonic.

But attitudes appear to be changing. Earlier this year Ewa Strusinska was appointed at Manchester's Hallé as the first female assistant conductor in the UK. And a year ago Marin Alsop became the first female to head up a major US orchestra.

Despite these changes, a woman on the podium remains a rare sight. 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.

"It's a historic prejudice, 25 years ago there were no female presenters on the news either," says cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht.

"It wasn't something that women went in for because the odds seemed too great."

Time of turmoil

However, in Ms Alsop's conducting class there is normally an equal balance of men and women. "I don't think women hesitate as much to consider a career as a conductor these days," she says.

 Photo by Grant Leighton

Marin Alsop in full swing

"As far as opportunities, I would imagine that there are more now than ever before, but it would be naive not to notice that there are no women music directors of any major orchestras in the world."

Lebrecht claims that "all borders have now fallen", but how long will it take for the gender imbalance to even out?

"How long will it be until there is an even mix of males and females in the cabinet? It is a function of society and not of music."

Natalia Luis-Bassa, one of the mentors in the Maestro series and principal conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra, agrees.

"We are in the biggest period of turmoil, with women invading what is typically a men's space.

"The podium has been dominated by men for so long, people are used to it. We are used to seeing women at top positions in business and we will get used to this in the orchestra as well.

"Managers and orchestra coordinators can still be very prejudiced against women, but there are women that are as good as, if not better than males. In 10 to 15 years things will even out."

Ian Maclay, managing director of the Royal Philharmonic orchestra, admits that the profession is "steeped in tradition".

"There may have once been prejudice, in the days when orchestras were strong male bastions."

However, Mr Maclay stresses things are different now and all conductors at the Royal Philharmonic are appointed solely on merit.

The orchestra's principal conductors are all men.

"Many conductors don't reach their full potential until they are 50 or 60. There is a process, you must get recognition and learn your trade."

With an increasing number of young women taking up the baton, it appears to be simply a matter of time until females are a common sight on the highest podiums.

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