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Another explanation for gender imbalance

0 Robert Levine

It’s often forgotten that the core concept behind the World Wide Web (as opposed to the Internet, with which the Web is often confused) is the hyperlink. A hyperlink is that underlined word or phrase or image on a Web page on which one clicks to go there and find out more. The power of hyperlinks lies in their ability to instantly take one to resources which, 15 years ago, would either have required hours of research to find or would simply have not been there at all.

I was reminded of that this morning when I was reading an Andrew Sullivan blog post, which took me to a Felix Salmon blog post, which took me to a Clay Shirky blog post, which led me to read more of his posts, During that process, I found a gem about the differences between men and women when it comes to self-promotion:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is fairly gender-balanced, and I’ve taught about as many women as men over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given him the pseudonym Moustache McMasculine for all the mystery there was. And I’ve grown increasingly worried that most of the women in the department, past or present, simply couldn’t write a letter like that.

This worry isn’t about psychology; I’m not concerned that women don’t engage in enough building of self-confidence or self-esteem. I’m worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.

This is a problem that we think we’ve solved in our business with the screened audition, and to some extent we have - although it’s worth remembering that few orchestras keep the screen up through the entire process, and there remain aspects of the hiring process which are susceptible to being gamed by those with gender bias. And it’s also true that there appears to be more gender imbalance in hiring leadership positions within orchestras than for rank-and-file jobs.

But success as an orchestra musician isn’t solely about winning auditions. What happens after that? Internally there’s the tenure process, which obviously can’t be a “blind.” And externally there’s the potential for career-enhancing opportunitites; chamber music, summer festivals, and the like.

In my experience, there is a marked gender imbalance in terms of extramural success. In particular, in terms of the kinds of self-promotion that Shirky writes about, I see far more examples of that amongst male musicians than amongst female colleagues.

Think about the people in your orchestra who reach out to the local critics and arts reporters. If your orchestra is like mine, those who schmooze the press will be mostly, if not entirely, men. And whose chamber music concerts get reviewed? Very likely those same musicians. How warm is the coverage of those musicians’ solo appearances with the orchestra? Likely warmer, and more extensive, than of those who didn’t take the trouble to take the local critic out to lunch.

Obviously this is not just a gender thing. Most critics aren’t actively biased in favor of men or women musicians, and there are lots of guys who are uncomfortable with this kind of self-promotion. We’d all like to believe that simply playing well is enough.

But it’s not. And, as long as it’s not (which is to say, until Hell freezes over), those who don’t promote their own work will not receive the recognition they deserve, and those who do will receive that recognition - and more.


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