Classical Music and Gender: A brief introduction to where we are and where we can go

Share this article

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Gender, Classical Music, Safe Spaces, Spaces International, Inclusion, Mixed Race, Interracial, Experience

Signup for our mailing list.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

My name is Ben Glassberg-Frost and I am an Orchestral and Operatic Conductor. I am the unholy trinity of privilege: straight, white, male and I work in a profession that has an extraordinarily poor gender balance.

In 2017, the Association of British Orchestras carried out a study to investigate gender balance among conductors working in my industry. The ABO has 61 full member ensembles, of which there are 100 titled positions for conductors. At the time of the study, 4 of these 100 conductors were women. That’s right; not 40, but 4. This has ameliorated slightly in the last 3 years, but we are still yet to reach double figures. The same survey looked at artist management agencies with more than 5 conductors on their books. Of these companies, 95% of the conductors represented were male. On the one hand I find this shocking; on the other, I’m not at all surprised.

When I was in my final year at university, I was lucky enough to be asked to sit on the jury for the student conducting competition. For the first time in a number of years, one woman had made it through to the final (you can imagine how delighted we were to have at least reached this milestone!). The final round was progressing without incident, each young conductor taking their turn to rehearse the student orchestra. When it was the turn of this particular individual, as she walked up to the podium she passed the cello section; one member of this section said something along the lines of ‘a woman? Really?!’. I was gobsmacked and yet didn’t have the confidence to speak up. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is not a jaded group of near-retirees, but an orchestra of highly intelligent people in their 20s. I suppose it is embarrassing to say, but this was perhaps the first time I truly understood how my gender so significantly affected how people viewed me, particularly in the role of a conductor.

This was perhaps the first time I truly understood how my gender so significantly affected how people viewed me, particularly in the role of a conductor.

I’m pleased to say that things are slowly changing in the Classical Music business. More often than not I see orchestras across the world appointing women to senior positions. We have had 2 women conduct the ‘Last Night of the Proms’, we have seen conducting courses established purely to encourage women in the field and we have seen a real drive from the major artist management companies to take on and nurture female talent. I do believe, however, that we have not gone nearly far enough.

It is essential, for a start, to find role models and place them in key positions. We must also promote access for women at a much younger age. As a man, you grow up being told that you can achieve anything, in any field. I lose count of the number of young male contemporaries of mine who were encouraged to try conducting. There are hordes of us! When I talk to my female colleagues, on the other hand, they were never given this opportunity.

Over the last 3 years, I have both got married and had my first child. Any illusions I had that my industry was an exception in a society of otherwise relative gender equality have been shattered.

After our wedding, my wife and I decided to double-barrel our surname. We thought both names sounded good and made what was a fairly straightforward decision, rather than attempting to make an even vaguely political statement. I was taken aback by the response from some family members, particularly on my side, who were shocked that we would choose to compromise the integrity of the family name. It’s not like it’s a particularly new phenomenon to see a woman double barrel, or simply keep her own name. My enlightenment was further compounded when our son was born; family members were truly surprised by how much I was contributing to the parenting responsibilities (and trust me, it wasn’t nearly enough!). One relative was shocked that I was the one cooking dinner every evening and not my wife.

We frequently tell ourselves as a society that we have reached gender equality and that feminism is no longer needed.

As far as I’m concerned, although I’m no sociologist, that is garbage.

We have a collective responsibility – and I would argue particularly men – to fight for real equality regardless of gender.

We have a collective responsibility – and I would argue particularly men – to fight for real equality regardless of gender. Those of us in positions of leadership within organisations must use our power to affect real change. I am in the fortunate position of being the Music Director of an opera house in France and even more fortunate that my colleagues are all forward thinking and proactive. Having said this, I feel that people are uncomfortable talking openly about diversity; conversations are always euphemistic and rarely address the issue head on. I refuse to bow to this and in my first meetings and press conferences have made clear that I believe our gender (and racial, but that is a story for another day!) balance is not good enough and that one of my key missions as Music Director is to change that. Both in terms of the artists we hire (particularly conductors) but also in terms of the music we play. You will all have heard of Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn, but how many of you have heard of Florence Price (the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a US professional orchestra), Fanny Mendelssohn (the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote a plethora of beautiful music) or Judith Weir (Master of the Queen’s Music since 2014 and the first woman to hold this post)?

This mission manifests itself in a number of ways and I think it is important to not fear the label of being ‘tokenistic’. I believe, in the short term at least, it is worth considering some form of positive discrimation in order to encourage greater diversity. It could even be something as simple as trying to be conscious of thinking of people of both genders for any given opportunity. If I am looking to hire a conductor for a ballet project, can I think of a woman who is a specialist in this field, rather than just going for the usual list of names (usually male!).  Similarly, when a guest conductor proposes a programme they would like to conduct, I will always return with feedback including suggestions of works by either women or composers of colour. This season, I have managed to programme works by a number of female composers, including the world premiere of a new work that we have commissioned.

One of my greatest dreams for the profession – and I think particularly for when my son is old enough to be aware of this – is that the term ‘female conductor’ no longer exists.

As far as I’m concerned, this is not rocket science. If all organisations were to approach diversity in a more transparent fashion, not worrying about the potential embarrassment of seeming ‘un-woke’ or trying too hard, I am certain that things would improve at a faster rate than they are doing currently. One of my greatest dreams for the profession – and I think particularly for when my son is old enough to be aware of this – is that the term ‘female conductor’ no longer exists. When I can go to the opera and not be pleasantly surprised to see a woman on the podium. When we no longer need to use positive discrimination as a tactic to increase diversity. We are still a long way off this, but I have hope for the future and am committed to playing my part in fighting for the future musicians of this world.

Share this article

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Leave a Reply

Recent Articles

Age, Safe Spaces, Spaces International, Inclusion, Mixed Race, Interracial, Experience

What’s my age again?

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? This seemingly innocuous but loaded question has been the bane of my life for years. But how relevant are age-based milestones? I reflect upon my personal experience with these often unrealistic goals.

Read More »
Gender, Safe Spaces, Spaces International, Inclusion, Mixed Race, Interracial, Experience

Gender: When men need Victoria’s Secrets

At the heart of social justice is the restoration of dignity to those who have been oppressed. There are times when this need is very personal, and the person under the yoke of oppression will seek out relief, from the most unlikely people. This was the case for Vickie when a male prison inmate passed her a roughly scribbled note and implored her not to read it till she got home.

Read More »
Close Menu