By the Numbers

By the Numbers

Last week, the website “Vida: Women in Literature” published their 2011 count. This series of pie charts visualizes the ratio of female to male representatives in various categories—including published fiction, book reviewers, authors reviewed—at some of the most prestigious periodicals in the fiction world. As an example, The New York Review of Books, considered one of the most important publishers of criticism on contemporary works, contracted with female reviewers 21% of the time (roughly four male reviewers for every female) in order to talk about books whose authors skewed 82% male. The New Yorker performed marginally more equally, with 28% of their articles generated by female authors and exactly one third of their “Briefly Noted” reviews devoted to works by women. A quick scroll through the statistics shows most publications representing women in the 20–30% range, with Granta standing alone as the only publication who published more women than men overall. For more context on these numbers, I recommend Danielle Pafunda’s “The Trouble with Rationalizing the Numbers Trouble”.

I’ve been following the online reaction to these numbers with interest. Writers from all walks of life quickly condemned the ratios, and many of the editors promised to look into improving the equality of gender representation within their pages. Although there are obviously many people who defend current practices, the literary community appears to have reached an overall consensus that this sort of inequality is wrong and should be corrected.

The main thing that struck me about these numbers is this: If they had been generated by concert presenting organizations they would have seemed exceptionally progressive.

I co-founded the ensemble League of the Unsound Sound, which has presented four different concert programs over two seasons. Since I try to be aware of gender inclusivity, as part of our programming, I took care to ensure that each concert included at least one female composer. As our ratio of 5 works by female composers compared to 13 by male composers shows (when considering specific pieces as represented on distinct concert programs—repeated programs at multiple venues are considered as a single concert), the literary community would have considered my efforts to be an abject failure.

LotUS Programming

I wondered how LotUS compared to other new music ensembles, and so I unscientifically perused the websites of some of my favorite groups. I want to emphasize that I chose the following groups because I think they are all wonderful and also because their sites made the data easily available. Each of these ensembles is comprised of amazing performers who I would pay to hear perform any repertoire, and I believe that they are among the most progressive programmers in the U.S. today. In short, I only included artists for whom I have the utmost respect and who I believe care about working towards gender equality in their programming. If I took the time to check other groups, I strongly believe that the ones listed below would remain among the most equal in their gender distribution. This makes the data that much less encouraging.

Before continuing, I need to stop for an important caveat. The Vida site spends months compiling and checking their statistics. They look at the same publications over years. Their charts are created with a scientific rigor that I am not trying to equal. I compiled the data for the charts and ratios below by quickly perusing the websites of some of my favorite organizations. I might have miscounted. Please consider the following as rough estimates only.

Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, Bang on a Can has long been on the vanguard of new music, and so I was not surprised that the listed ensemble repertoire for the Bang on a Can All Stars displayed the most equality among the ones I counted. Their ratio of 13 works by women compared to 47 by men composers counts as the highest percentage of women among those surveyed.

BOAC Repetoire

Other of my favorite new music groups all showed gender distributions with more than four men represented for every woman. The incredible JACK Quartet lists 100 pieces in their repertoire, of which 12 are by women. According to their website, Eighth Blackbird has been responsible for the creation of an astonishing 100 commissions, of which 18 are by women. Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, prints event listings that show that they have programmed 75 works this concert season (when considered like LotUS so distinct concert programs are counted separately but the same set of pieces performed in multiple venues is only counted once), 7 of which are by women. The current repertoire list of Alarm Will Sound names 65 different works, of which four are exclusively by women, one is an arrangement of the all-female band the Shaggs, and one is a John Lennon/Yoko Ono collaboration.

JACK Quartet Repetoire
Eighth Blackbird Commissions
Ensemble Dal Niente stats
AWS Repetoire

As I state above, I chose these groups because I imagine that they are among the most progressive programmers working today (and also because their websites are organized so that this data is easily available). I believe each of the ensembles I cite above has artistic directors that keep the goal of gender equity in mind when they determine their concert repertoire. It seems that we still have to travel far in order to achieve true equality.

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17 thoughts on “By the Numbers

  1. Scott Blasco

    This is a really interesting comparison. Do you (or does another reader, perhaps) happen to know how this correlates with the ratio of women to men among active composers (I ask, realizing the fuzziness of how “active” might be defined)?

  2. Smooke

    Dear Scott and Colin,

    First, thank you for your kind words, and for digging up those numbers. Yes, the ratios are skewed for composers of all ages. I think that this is endemic to the main problem itself, which is what we envision when we hear the word “composer.” Certainly the ratio of students in all conservatory instrumental programs is closer to 50-50, so why are we so reluctant to encourage women to try composing? Or are the young female musicians not drawn to composition because they have so few role models?

    Either way, we should recognize that there are many amazing composers who are underrepresented on new music programs and we should do our best to advocate for strong music by composers who deserve more recognition.

    – David

  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    What is the ratio in the field itself?

    When we ran the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar radio show (mostly 1995-2005), we had an open call to nonpop composers. If they could make it to Vermont, or if we were visiting their town (New York, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Ghent, Brussels, Paris, Cologne, and a few places I’ve likely forgotten), we would interview them. Over the years, more than 300 composers responded to our call.

    With this completely open call — the only criterion being an interest in and an availability for an interview — our ratio was 74% (226) male composer guests to 81 (26%) female composer guests.


  4. Emily

    Thanks for posting this. The thing I find really alarming is that these are the more progressive ensembles. For many less adventurous ensembles, the percentage is probably closer to 1 or 2. Same with textbooks — so many textbooks have NO examples by women composers in them, even when there are great pieces that could be included. Or, take a look at this: — 41 composers, not a single woman. I’ve been a composer for 20 years, and if anything, I feel like the under-representation of women has gotten worse.

  5. Kerry Andrew

    Hey David,

    You might have seen my article from the other side of the pond here:

    Also, whilst I should actually get down and look at my figures, I reckon that juice, the experimental a cappella group (rooted in contemporary classical music, and regular commissioners) I’m part of perform about half men and half women composers in most of our concerts, though sometimes it’s a little bit more like 60:40. It does include work by ourselves (three girls) as part of that ratio. All you have to do is look for the female composers, and be pro-active; it should be the same with all the ensembles above. We did a project in 2010 called ‘Laid Bare: 10 Love Songs’, where we commissioned short a cappella experimental ‘love songs’, and commissioned 5 women and 5 men. It was very easy to find the women – in fact, we had more women we wanted to commission than men!


  6. colin holter

    The thing I find really alarming is that these are the more progressive ensembles.

    This is an interesting point: Are ensembles generally regarded as “progressive” (not that it would be at all easy to prove – or even arrive at meaningful criteria to determine – whether they really are) likelier to present more egalitarian programs? I consider CMW, the ensemble I work with, quite progressive in its programming, but I’m ashamed to say that in three and a half years we’ve never done a piece by a female composer.

  7. JW

    Thanks for the excellent post. Also worth considering are presenting/funding organizations, like Music at the Anthology, American Opera Projects, Roulette, New Music USA, etc. I haven’t run the numbers, but I think each of those orgs is better at supporting women than the average shown here.

    Ensembles run by men sometimes completely ignore women (Alarm Will Sound did not one work by a woman for their first several years — I think nothing until they were hired to do an all-Augusta Read Thomas concert). And of course you’re focusing on east coast U.S. (and Chicago) here; European ensembles are generally worse about programming women than the average shown here.

  8. Joseph Holbrooke

    Of course I agree that we need to pressure organizations (especially ones that spend public money) to be fair. But I think getting more women involved with music historically dominated by men misses the point. It makes more sense to focus on taking seriously and supporting equally the work women are already doing.

    The way Title IX has changed high school and college athletics is a great example. Requiring equal funding for men and women makes more sense than trying to get woman involved in football.

    1. Emily

      But women ARE writing new music, and we’re being under-represented. About 20-25% of living composers are women, and there are very few new music ensembles that play that percentage of music by women.

          1. Emily

            And I got the 75% from Dennis Bathory-Kitz’s comment about composers on Kalvos and Damian. And here’s a report of performances of women composers in the UK: — though it doesn’t say what percentage of UK composers are women.

            If I were running an ensemble, I’d want to slightly over-represent women, just to counterbalance some of the historical and current inequity. However, I could also understand (and support) ensembles simply performing music by women in proportion to the numbers of composers who are women. What I can’t understand or support is ensembles consistently under-representing women. For example, I went to a concert a couple of years ago, the very topic of which was “diversity”. 6 pieces by men, no pieces by women. When I brought this to the attention of the organizers, they said they “didn’t have time” to find a piece by a woman to program. How exactly would it take more time to find a piece by a woman than by a man? If this were a one-off occurrence, that’s fine, but it happens over and over again.

            I teach, and I really see how the lack of representation of women affects the confidence level of female students. It affected me when I was a student too, but I feel like at that time there was a lot of hope that things were about to change. Now nothing has changed, but we’re all supposed to pretend sexism is over or something.

          2. Scott Blasco

            I agree completely about under-representation undermining confidence of young women composers (or would-be composers). Where I teach now, I have young men approach me more often than young women about studying composition, even though I have roughly similar numbers of men and women among my particularly gifted music theory students. I’ve begun actively (if gently) encouraging female students to think about composition, because it seems like the male students gravitate toward it more easily.

            In general, I’m fine with representation on concerts reflecting the actual demographics in the field, and would actually be a bit wary of too far over-representing women for reasons other than musical excellence. But in education? The field can only get healthier as we get a more equal distribution of men and women as composers, and the only way to get there is to encourage more women with potential to give it a shot!

  9. Patricia Morehead

    Dear David,

    Great to learn of your interest. Young women composers think that there is no problem.

    U of Chicago is a perfect example of women composers that do not need or want to consider the topic.

    I gave a considerable list to Robert Morgan many years ago at the U of Chicago of women that I thought were in my humble opinion truly important to be considered for his Twentieth Century History and Analysis Texts.

    The results in the final publication were dismal at best. Possibly the publisher and not the author.

  10. Linda Dusman

    In the theater community, there is a national project they call “50/50 in 2020” (the 100th anniversary of women suffrage), aiming to have representation by women playwrights in equity theaters reach gender equality by 2020.

    Anyone interested in a similar project for new music?


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