ARAD Works: “Navigating the Issue of Gender in Symphony Orchestras”

“American orchestras continue to lag behind broader social initiatives for gender diversity in the workplace. Do the processes involved in appointing musicians to orchestral positions foster success regarding the recruitment and retention of female musicians? How is the selection of musical leadership subject to the consideration of gender? What challenges and opportunities do orchestras experience if they seek to become more diverse?”

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Second-year graduating student, Tse Wei Kok, writes about how diversity is being pursued in orchestras in the United States in his thesis.

Navigating the Issue of Gender in Symphony Orchestras

Abstract: The symphony orchestra has an established tradition of being the exclusive domain of men. The widespread adoption of ‘blind’ auditions since the 1970s and 1980s has substantially changed the gender composition of American orchestras. However, while female representation is growing steadily in major orchestras, the growth is uneven across sections and leadership positions. The proportion of women in major orchestras is also significantly smaller than in the average American workplace. Despite the success of ‘blind’ auditions in making the orchestral workplace more inclusive for women, the responsibility of orchestras does not end with the continued adherence to the spirit of neutrality during ‘blind’ auditions. Orchestras have a role to play in challenging the gender typing of musical instruments, which restricts the choices that boys and girls have when it comes to selecting an instrument to learn, choices that have far-reaching implications on the pool of available musicians for each instrument section. The first step is for orchestras to acknowledge their contributory role in gender typing. They can then make conscious decisions to subvert gender types in their musician assignments for education programs in order to have an impact on the ‘supply pipeline’ of musicians at its earliest point. Although orchestras have reason to stand by the fairness of their selection processes for principal musicians – the musical leaders of the orchestra – the failure to recognize the effect of gender on how leadership is produced and received could blind orchestras to disadvantages that female principal musicians may face. While orchestras may want to reap the creative benefits that multicultural organizations enjoy, the transition from a monolithic organization to a multicultural one will result in the degradation of group cohesiveness, a quality that is particularly important for orchestras.

For Tse Wei’s full paper, please contact the ARAD program at aradassistant@tc.columbia.edu.

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