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Another take on gender discrimination

0 Robert Levine

Strings magazine has an article on gender discrimination in its most recent issue that’s worth a look. While the writer, Rory Williams, focuses on the ongoing saga of how many women have really been hired by the Vienna Philharmonic, there is also quite a bit on the situation in the US as well:

The latest available survey by the League of American Orchestras shows that across all US orchestras in the 2007–08 season, women accounted for 48.63 percent of the musicians. In smaller orchestras, women accounted for 78 percent.

However, in larger orchestras the share of women changed to 36.14 percent—or just a little more than a third. Upon hearing the figures and reflecting on her own experience as an orchestral musician, Buzzarté was able to tidily sum it up: “In general, the more elite the orchestra, the less women.”

Polly Kahn, the League’s vice president of Learning and Leadership Development, keeps it positive. She points out that as of April 2010, 70 principal players in “group-one orchestras” are women. “That is a very significant number and it speaks to the escalation of the critical role of women in major orchestras,” Kahn says.

But that level of hiring doesn’t always carry over to one of the highest-paid positions in the orchestra—the concertmaster seat. Orchestra consultant Drew McManus compiled a list of the highest-paid concertmaster positions from the 2007–08 season in his 2010 Compensation Report: Concertmasters, which is based on the latest available tax claims. The top ten were in Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, and several other metropolitan areas.

At the top of the list was Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Cecylia Arzewski, who earned $578,436 as part of a buyout. Her seat has since been filled by violinist David Coucheron.

But Fleezanis notes that not all conductors are as comfortable. “I have to say that was their discomfort and not mine,” she says. “I chose to just behave in such a way as to not bring that up by filling my boots, so to speak, and doing the job and being responsible and carrying on as a professional would—whether male or female—to get the job done and to get the job done well.When Strings cross-referenced the remaining top nine posts with those orchestras’ rosters as of the 2009–10 season, it was revealed that all of them are held by men.

In an article I wrote for Polyphonic last year, I pointed out that there were significant discrepancies in gender balance amongst the various principal positions in American orchestras, as well as between the gender balance industry-wide in the principal corps and gender balance amongst section musicians. I’m glad to see others writing about the issue, although missing in the Strings article was any theorizing about why we still seem to have gender balance issues. No doubt we are, as a whole, doing better than Vienna. But that’s a pretty low bar.

There was an interesting hint, though, that the problem is not where orchestra musicians might like to believe it is - ie, conductors behaving badly:

Violinist Jorja Fleezanis spent two decades as concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra—the longest-tenured concertmaster in that ensemble’s history. When she was appointed in 1989 by then-music director Edo de Waart, she became only the second woman in the country with that coveted position in a major orchestra.

“I really have to applaud [de Waart],” Fleezanis says. “[He] had no issues with women whatsoever in the orchestra. In fact, he was militant about always saying things in favor of women simply because one had to because there were so few of them at the time he was growing up.”

But Fleezanis notes that not all conductors are as comfortable. “I have to say that was their discomfort and not mine,” she says. “I chose to just behave in such a way as to not bring that up by filling my boots, so to speak, and doing the job and being responsible and carrying on as a professional would—whether male or female—to get the job done and to get the job done well.

Not all orchestra musicians are as comfortable either. A lot has been written over the years about whether orchestra musicians really accept women conductors as authority figures and the degree to which that has held them back. I think we need to ask the same question of ourselves about women in leadership positions within orchestras.

It’s hard for me to accept that there are twice as many women principal seconds in ICSOM orchestras as women concertmasters for any reason related to ability. And, given the influence that we have negotiated over the decades for ourselves in the hiring process, it’s just as hard for me to accept that gender discrimination in hiring is all the fault of our music directors.


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