The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation

lean-mfI once had a conversation with my violin teacher that I will never forget. I was at a crucial stage in my development as a musician. The path to a career as a professional violinist was becoming clearer to me, and my passion and talent were becoming more evident. I was in my lesson; I had a stack of music on the stand and several important auditions coming up. Turning to my teacher and mentor, I wondered aloud how viable this path was really going to be.

“I would advise you to think very, very carefully about all of this,” she said grimly. “Being a musician and having a family is extremely difficult.”

I was fourteen.

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment.

In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.

In graduate school, I worked on the Glazunov concerto. In front of my entire studio, my teacher said: “Please forgive me for saying this, but you are playing it like a woman.” When I played the passage better, she made it clear I had achieved the goal. Although I remained a woman, I had played it like a man.

Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, explores the question of why more women have not risen to the top echelons of management and leadership in any industry. Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and has begun to use her enormous platform to sound the alarm about women’s roles in the workplace. In Lean In, she cites the dismal number of female heads of state, members of parliament, and chief executives worldwide, and launches into an in-depth discussion of women’s internal barriers to success. Sandberg acknowledges the height of society’s external barriers—such as lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that collides headfirst with the biological clock—but her focus is on the more personal, internal blocks to success. What self-limiting attitudes has our sexist society created in women, and how are these attitudes holding them back from the kind of career success and freedom that men enjoy?

At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. Never mind that hardly any women conduct, and leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles. In just a couple of generations, it does seem like the gender balance of American symphony orchestras has shifted dramatically—a shift we can confirm simply counting the number of women in orchestral chairs all over the country.

But in the art music world outside of the American orchestral scene, it’s harder to quantify how far women have or haven’t come. This is a more informal economy; we can’t count female full-time hires because there are hardly any full-time jobs. Women “rising to the top” in the contemporary music scene means coming into a position of social, cultural, and aesthetic influence. That’s a kind of success that’s harder to identify. Are women equally represented among prominent art-shapers and cultural decision makers? Are they curating the most cutting-edge concert series in town? Are women the people whose concert reviews you eagerly anticipate? These questions are harder to answer with any certainty, but in what follows, I’ll argue that—at least in Chicago—the answer is no.

Every year, the Chicago Tribune chooses “Chicagoans of the Year” in music, often praising these artists for work that is visionary and groundbreaking. Since 2008—as far back as the online archive goes—all nine of the honorees (George LePauw, Lupe Fiasco, Mark George, Bruce Iglauer, Paulinho Garcia, Syl Johnson, Riccardo Mutti, Mike Orlove, and Local H) have been men. The writers selecting these visionaries have also been exclusively men: Howard Reich, John von Rhein, and Greg Kot.

Chicago magazine has a similar honor; since 2006, all three of its honorees (Ken Vandermark, Ramsey Lewis, and Kimo Williams) have been men.

A recent Chicago magazine new music “power list”, written by a man, included seven men and one woman. The men on the list are men I admire and know well: artistically adventurous, socially connected, innovative, and ambitious. The only woman on the list, Mei-Ann Chen, is a conductor pursuing a fairly traditional career anchored by a major Chicago orchestral institution. The type of “power” articulated in Chen’s career has very little overlap with the kind of self-made creative power shared by honorees Marcos Balter, George LePauw, and the Spektral Quartet. Chen’s inclusion seemed out of place—but sadly, it was the first time since at least 2006 that Chicago magazine has bestowed this kind of honor on any woman musician.

Most of the new and influential creative organizations in our scene—the organizations whose creativity and dynamism will form the heart of our cultural and professional lives—are run by men. To give a small sampling: the Spektral Quartet is all men; is run by Paul Giallorenzo; all six of the staff at Elastic Arts are men; exciting new venue Constellation is run by Mike Reed. Beethoven Festival, which has been honored as one of the most exciting new cultural initiatives in Chicago, has six musicians on its executive committee. Only one is a woman, and she is in charge of educational outreach. At the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which is changing the face of our city with its investment in contemporary music, all four of the wonderful people in charge of cultural programming are men. I say this not to shame anyone for being a man, working with men, or for being successful. I simply say this to point out that among the most exciting, successful, and innovative new projects happening in Chicago, women’s participation is not equal.

Among Chicago’s contemporary music ensembles, 63% of the performers are men.[1] Among music writers with a regular byline in a major publication or radio outlet, 82% are men.[2] At Pitchfork Media, a Chicago-based publication which is increasingly paying attention to “indie-classical” artists, only 6 of the 40 staff writers are women. (Though two-thirds of the interns are female.)

Lest it seem that I am pointing the finger at other organizations, let’s look at one of my own. During a recent meeting of Parlour Tapes—a new Chicago record label I’m part of—we were assembling the list of contributors to our October compilation release. As we surveyed the list, we realized that more than 75 percent of the invited artists were men. We didn’t intend our first release to have such a gender imbalance—it had just happened. How could our team—which includes two women and two men—have missed that?

As I reflect on the problems mentioned above, I think of those women in our community who are highly visible leaders. Melissa Snoza of Fifth House Ensemble was a huge role model for me when I founded my own ensemble. Composer and aperiodic director Nomi Epstein consistently innovates. And of course, Chicago continues to feel the profound influence of MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase, years after she moved to New York. However, we should view these women not as proof that “there’s no problem here,” but as having achieved success in spite of the challenges they face. As Limor Tomer put it at the Chamber Music America conference in New York this year, “In the phrase ‘old boys network,’ the operative word is network.” In contemporary music, as in most fields, networking is power. Despite admirable achievements from outstanding musical women in Chicago, the fact remains that women often aren’t making it onto “power lists”—whether informal or in print. The men in our community have been far more successful in amassing social capital and using it to advance their musical careers.

Why is this the case? Why aren’t more women being recognized for visionary artistic leadership in Chicago’s contemporary music scene—and why aren’t more women providing that visionary leadership in the first place?

As it turns out, the research Sandberg discusses in Lean In can help us answer these questions.

1. Women musicians, like all women, pay a “likability tax” when they are self-promoting, assertive, and successful. One of the most important sociological facts Sandberg emphasizes is that success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. A strong body of research demonstrates that if a man has an ambitious, thriving, and successful career, his peers will find him more likable; if a woman has the same kind of career, her peers will find her less likable. Two studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology called this the “penalty for success.” Women artists pay a social tax for their professional achievements that men do not. Women musicians cannot promote themselves in the same way that men do without facing negative consequences in the way they are perceived personally. This is particularly problematic for performing artists, who must cultivate personal connections and an enthusiastic fan base (read: people who like you) in order to survive. Women find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that they might shy away from career developments that would make them, say, Chicagoan of the Year in Music—or that when it comes time to choose, journalists don’t find those women leaders quite as appealing.

2. Women musicians are less likely to embark on high visibility projects, take professional risks, and conceive of themselves as leaders—which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in developing entrepreneurial careers. Research in “gender differences in task choice” has demonstrated that, when given the opportunity to choose a more challenging or risky task at work, women were far less likely than men to choose that path. Other research has demonstrated that millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as leaders and visionaries. This does not mean, of course, that women cannot take risks and establish visionary careers; it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.

3. Women consistently underestimate their own talents and abilities, leaving them at a disadvantage in the essential realm of self-promotion. Research in Lean In indicates that even when women and men perform equally well as surgeons, the women are likely to believe that they have performed worse. When it comes time for women artists to announce a new commission, upload a new performance video, or send a press release, how might this chronic devaluation of their abilities affect them?

4. When choosing who to hire, men are significantly more likely to choose a man. The consulting firm Innovisor found this to be true in more than twenty countries. So in a field where most composers, conductors, curators, music writers, and “visionaries” are men, the situation of a mostly male circle of influencers is likely to perpetuate itself.

5. Similarly, senior men are more likely to mentor young men than young women. Sandberg, drawing on research from the Journal of Vocational Behavior, notes that “mentoring relationships often form when the younger person reminds the more senior person of themselves. This means that men will often gravitate towards sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Since there are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues to flourish.” This means that fewer women musicians are being sponsored and mentored by influential, senior men in their field.

Having a mentor relationship misperceived as a romantic or sexual relationship is also a problem. Research in The Sponsor Effect shows that 64% of high-ranking executive men are hesitant to have a meeting with a more junior woman, and half of junior women avoided close contact with senior men. This means that in crucial social settings, like post-concert beers or a brainstorming coffee date, young women are less comfortable seeking out mentorship that could yield enormous professional dividends in the early stages of their careers.

6. Women are taught from an early age to worry about whether they can have children and a career. Five years before I had my first real boyfriend, my violin teacher was talking to me about balancing work and family life. Let’s face it: this seed of anxiety was never planted in the minds of my male colleagues. Sandberg cites research which shows that in two Princeton University studies—one conducted in 1974, one in 2006—there was a dramatic disparity between male and female students’ perceptions of whether work and family would be a conflict for them. In both studies, twice as many women foresaw this as a problem. This inner worry, Sandberg claims, means that women who want families “lean back” from their careers rather than leaning in.


I bring these findings, and my own experiences and observations, forward for three very important reasons:

1. I believe that women rarely get the opportunity to discuss the psychological and emotional limitations that gender socialization has created within them. While I know some of Sandberg’s research is deeply discouraging, my hope is that it can also serve as a point of inspiration. I hope that some of my female peers will recognize themselves in these words, and be encouraged to push through inevitable feelings of self-doubt and fear. My hope is that every woman can become the composer, performer, writer, curator, and art-shaper that she dreams of becoming.

2. I believe that many men are not aware of these issues, because their life experience has not required them to be. Men may feel helpless when learning about this research; they may find themselves feeling defensive or skeptical. But I also believe that my male colleagues care deeply about equality and want a thriving musical ecosystem where all voices can be heard. By examining their personal lives, their beliefs, and the practices of their ensembles and organizations, I believe men can become essential allies in acknowledging women’s unique challenges and encouraging them to live up to their full potential.

3. As a woman writer and musician who has benefited from the encouragement and mentorship of countless men and women in the Chicago scene, I am in a position of relative privilege. As I read Lean In and realized how powerful its findings are, I came to feel that I had a responsibility to share what I had learned. My hope is that this article will generate a discussion that acknowledges that we have a problem—and that we all share the responsibility to make it better.

1.Ensembles counted: Palomar, Anubis Quartet, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Q, Dal Niente, eighth blackbird, Fifth House, Fulcrum Point, Gaudete Brass, ICE, Maverick, Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, and Fonema Consort.

2.Media outlets included: Tribune, Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Reader.

Ellen McSweeney (NewMusicBox) / April 10, 2013

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