Women’s Representation in Music

by Elizabeth Keenan


The Leaky Pipeline for Women in Music

  • The “Leaky Pipeline” is a concept most commonly associated with STEM fields. It describes the loss over time of women from certain STEM fields, largely due to gendered stereotypes, that results in their underrepresentation. The “leaks” occur at different stages in the “pipeline”: when girls are discouraged from taking science courses in high school; when they change from STEM majors in college; when they opt not to go to grad school in STEM fields; or when they choose industry options over academic tracks.
  • A similar effect happens in music: while many girls take lessons to learn an instrument or sing, they are less likely to be encouraged into careers where they create music. This is music’s “leaky pipeline”, where women enter careers as performers, rather than as composers.


Can’t women just write music anyway? What’s the big holdup?

  • It’s more complicated!
  • Women are actively discouraged from risk taking.
    • Although older studies categorized men as more likely risk-takers than women, more recent ones have discovered that women also take risks. However, they’re more likely to take risks on behalf of a group rather than their individual needs.1
  • Women are more likely to underestimate their own abilities.
    • Women constantly underestimate their abilities and downplay their successes, while men overestimate theirs.2
  • Men are more likely to mentor other men. Whether it’s fear of sexual harassment lawsuits or the ease of mentoring someone who looks like them, many men do not mentor women.3 In strongly male-dominated areas of music, this can be career-killing.
  • These are structural issues that reinforce the status quo. If men don’t mentor women, it’s less likely that they will see them as equals or creators; this means fewer invitations to perform at gigs. As well, if women feel less confidence in their abilities, they are less likely to put their names forward.

The music industry itself fosters women in certain types of careers, both as businesspeople and as performers.

  • Women have traditionally taken on jobs in publicity, marketing, and other “feminized” careers.4
  • Men dominate the careers based in creativity—such as A&R—and that offer more power to sign artists and shape labels.
  • This male-run industry results in male-heavy programming, from top to bottom. In genres from indie rock to hip-hop, male artists receive the bulk of contracts and promotion. The exception, of course, is pop, which is less critically valued as a genre.
  • Festivals provide an easy illustration of men’s predominance in certain genres. In 2015, a graphic designer deleted all the male-only bands from festival posters. The result was quite stunning.5

Additional barriers in classical music performance:

  • In classical music, female performers and composers face additional hurdles, often steeped in the very tradition in which they work.
  • Until the introduction of blind auditions in the early 1980s, women accounted for about 12% of professional orchestra players in the United States, and zero conductors.6
  • By 2010, the number of women musicians in the major symphony orchestras had reached around 36%. With almost 50% women performers by 2010, the New York Philharmonic and which became one of the first major orchestras to hire a female assistant conductor (Xian Zhang) in 2004.7
  • Because conducting cannot be decided with a blind audition, women still face discrimination. Marin Alsop was the first woman to become a conductor at a major orchestra, and she’s still the only one.8


Valuing composers over performers—and performers over fans

  • In both popular and art music, those who are “performers” tend to receive less credit for their originality or creativity (think how Beyoncé has been disregarded as a songwriter for her collaborative process), while those who are perceived as “creators” (someone like Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for poetry) receive more credit for their contributions. Historically, in both popular and art music, women’s and men’s roles have been divided along those lines.9
  • Women are more likely to be categorized as fans, rather than as potential musical creators. As a result, they have fewer ways to access the kind of musical training that would lead to a career in music.
  • Typically, instruments like guitar (and yes, DJ equipment) have been associated with male performers. Because women have little representation as performers, teen girls have fewer idols on these instruments. This may be changing, though—Taylor Swift has driven sales of the guitar in the teen girl segment of the market.10

Did you really write that?:

  • Women creators—especially DJs and other popular musicians, whose name is not written in a program and handed out to audience members—frequently get questions about the man behind the curtain.
  • When women participate as creators, men often cannot separate women’s work from their gender. Many men will start to see women as encroaching on a territory that is rightfully for men. A recent example of this in Groove magazine featured DJ Konstantin of the Giegling collective suggesting that women are overrepresented and not as good as male DJs.11

Barriers for women as composers in the art music world:

  • Women composers’ music is underrepresented in classical programming.
  • Women in Music UK has been tracking the representation of women composers and conductors at the BBC Proms (the world’s largest classical music festival) since 1989. In 2017, women accounted for only 7.5% of composers presented.12
  • In the United States, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted a survey of the 2015-2016 season for 89 US orchestras. Their findings:
    • Overall, only 1.7% of composers were women.
    • Among living composers, women composed only 14% of the pieces.
    • Literally every female composer in the survey was a living composer.13
  • This 12% figure aligns with film composers, too.14
  • In 2013, Ellen McSweeney posted on New Music Box that an informal survey of Chicago new music programming showed that 63% of the performers were men, while 82% of the music writers were men.15

1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/emmajohnson/2016/02/29/1227/#1971af2465e4
2 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/
3 https://www.themuse.com/advice/why-men-dont-mentor-younger-womenand-how-we-can-change-that
4 https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/why-are-there-so-many-women-in-pr/375693/
5 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2015/jun/23/music-festival-posters-male-acts-removed-in-pictures
6 http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/public/page/Women_in_music
7 http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/public/page/Women_in_music
8 http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/public/page/Women_in_music
9 In popular music studies, see Matthew Bannister
10 This story is SUPER SEXIST, but it illustrates the point. The bit at the end about girls taking up guitar because of Taylor Swift is useful. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-the-death-of-the-electric-guitar-20170623-story.html
11 https://www.residentadvisor.net/news.aspx?id=39316
12 http://www.womeninmusic.org.uk/proms-survey-annual.htm
13 https://www.bsomusic.org/stories/what-data-tells-us-about-the-2015-16-orchestra-season.aspx
14 http://variety.com/2016/music/spotlight/women-film-composers-1201843422/
15 http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/the-power-list-why-women-arent-equals-in-new-music-leadership-and-innovation/


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