Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair

First of all, if you haven’t yet read Ellen McSweeney’s excellent article from yesterday, take the opportunity now. Thanks to Ellen and composer Reena Esmail, I decided pick up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and even though I’m just part way through chapter three, I see quite a bit in those pages not only of myself, but of so many other women around me. The information is not necessarily new, but it is presented in a clear, succinct manner that paints a remarkably accurate picture of the working world from a female perspective.

Conveniently, over the past couple of months I have also been connecting with a greater number of female composers than usual, partly by chance. Time and time again I feel both overwhelmed with pride for the amazingly talented women making music in our world today, and fantastically frustrated by the lack of recognition many of them receive. Some of that frustration, as Sandberg’s book neatly outlines, is due not only to external social structures, but also to the internal challenges that many women face on a daily basis. These matters are all so complex, and there are so many wide-ranging issues in play, that it is going to take a long time and a lot of people of both genders to continue improving the landscape for female composers and musicians.

The thought that keeps popping into my head as a crucial element in this tangled web is that women are not culturally encouraged to ask for things. In a professional setting, men, in general, tend to have little problem asking for whatever they want and/or need, while not only do women tend not to ask for things, they sometimes are not aware of all the things they could ask for, and as a result, don’t. To pile onto that, the very act of a woman asking for something is often perceived differently than the same request made by a man. This falls in line with Sandberg’s “likeability factor,” which points out that success for a woman causes her to be perceived as less likeable (the opposite is true for men). It’s perfectly natural for a man to ask for a thing, while if a woman asks for the same thing in the same way, she is more likely to be seen as self-serving, which counts as points against her. This seeps into myriad nooks and crannies of life, from negotiating salaries and composition commissions to navigating daily schedules, work habits, and personal relationships. A colleague recently told a story of a man who offered a position in his company to a woman. The man said, “I would have happily given her $X more if she had just asked for it.” It is notable that the woman did not negotiate, even when negotiation for job salaries is a cultural norm in the business world. However, had she negotiated her salary, it might have affected her employer’s opinion of her in a possibly negative way. It’s a messy, vicious cycle that needs to be broken somehow.

In the music world, I see and experience other women not asking for stuff all the time. And believe me, I get it—asking for things can be truly difficult. Often more than one try is necessary—that is true for anyone of either gender—when submitting grant applications or making proposals for creative opportunities. I have experienced situations in which asking for something for myself was almost physically painful! But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Recently I challenged myself to do some asking of a sort that I normally would not, and while it was by no means easy to do, the answers turned out to be yes! In fact there were responses like, “Oh! Sure, we can do that. Thank you for asking!” And really, even if the answers had been no, would that have been so bad? I don’t think so. Wonders can be wrought through the power of asking nicely.

Last week I attended a concert that included a work by a female composer whom I know personally, and whose music I think is exceptional. The ensemble had issued the invitation. When the composer and I spoke in person at the concert, this is how our conversation started:

Composer: “I’m so glad to see you! I was hoping you would come.”
Me: “Oh! You know you could have contacted me directly, right?”
Composer: “It’s just that I hate to impose….”

This sort of thing happens a lot. But I cannot think of even one instance in which a male composer has considered contacting me directly to attend a performance to be “imposing.” The guys are, frankly, all up in my face 24/7.

Similarly, the lack of asking here at NewMusicBox is very pronounced. Despite the fact that we are crystal clear about wanting to hear music by composers of both genders, are we flooded with CDs and emails from female composers? Quite the opposite. I would guess that over 90% of the recordings we receive contain music by male composers. In the almost three years that I have worked here, I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of female composers who have contacted me specifically asking for, well, anything that pertains to the music they are creating. And we are not the only organization for which this is the case. Several record labels have mentioned that they wish they received more CD proposals from women.

I honestly think that if every female artist—or every female of any profession—asked for one specific thing that they really wanted or needed, this could begin to shift our culture in a pronounced way. Sandberg writes in her book about the need for women to “sit at the table,” and the act of asking for something is an important way to pull up a chair and be part of the conversation.

What will you ask for?
Who will you ask?
When will you ask for it?
What are you waiting for?


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

9 thoughts on “Pull Up A Chair

  1. Alex Shapiro

    I’m so glad that you’ve written this, Alex, to offer positive suggestions following Ellen’s excellent, if sobering, overview.

    Without a doubt, there are plenty of troubling socio-societal issues concerning the perception of women. Not only with regard to how some men view women, but just as significantly, as to how some women view themselves. Changing those negative attitudes requires vigilance, education, and encouragement.

    Shifting other people’s beliefs usually takes longer than altering one’s own. The good news is that three of the six sticking points that Ellen lists (to summarize: #2, timidity; #3, lack of self worth; and #6, hauling around negative childhood messages) are not oppressions from the outside world. They are self-generated, limiting traits that can be overcome by deciding to change one’s own outlook and judgements.

    As Alex G. points out, not only does everyone have the right to pull up a chair to the table, but it’s incumbent on them to do so if they seek a career. And while proportionately, there are probably more women than men who could use a fresh set of casters to scoot there more easily, I’ve had countless conversations with male artists who suffer the same difficulty advocating for themselves as their female counterparts. This aspect of the discussion is not as much about women as it is about individual psychology.

    The most helpful thing one can do for a composer is to teach them the worth of who they are and of what they create. Possessing a core sense of self is what will lead them to be able to ask for what they need. It’s been heartening to see the increase in music entrepreneurship programs at schools, because, right alongside that newfound self-worth, arming composers with information gives them the confidence to assert themselves professionally.

    Way back in 2007, NewMusicBox published an essay of mine called “All The Things You Are: Five Suggestions for Composing Your Happiness“. While the reference to MySpace is laughably dated, much of what I addressed is directly related to this wonderful discussion our community has been having, thanks to Ellen, Alex G. and this forum.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Alex S.! You are very correct that some men also struggle with the act of asking for things. As I wrote to the previous commenter, it is the response of the outside world that can make a difference. There is a perception that it is “natural” for men to ask for stuff, and as such, there are not *generally* negative ramifications when they do. I’m just saying that the more women ask, the more it will become standard fare, and hopefully the perception of that action will change.

      And I completely agree that personal and artistic self-worth for an artist are key to the equation! We are so bombarded by conflicting messages from every direction (including internally) that it can be truly challenging to maintain those feelings. I feel incredibly fortunate that my education shielded me quite nicely from a lot of negativity until I was strong enough to deal with it. Otherwise, I’m sure I would never have become a composer!

  2. j

    Thanks so much for this recent series of articles on gender in the new music world. This is all feeling very relevant for me right now as I’m finding myself frustrated with my own inability to just ASK for things; even inviting people to my own concerts feels like such an imposition, even though I know it’s ridiculous to feel this way. In a weird way, it’s nice to hear that others struggle with this; I think that will make the asking easier next time!

    To put this all in context, I’m not a woman composer…not anymore, anyway. I’m a transgender man: everyone knows me as a man, and there’s no indication that I was ever anything different, but I spent my formative years as a female. Most of what you’ve written about rings true for me as well, and in many ways, even more so, since being transgender brings its own set of challenges and subliminal societal messages about one’s self worth.

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that I can’t commiserate with anyone about it either, because female composers perceive me as a man, and I don’t want to appear patronizing or to “mansplain” about feminism to women. And male composers don’t understand why I have such a hard time stepping up and claiming what I should feel entitled to. I do routinely step up on behalf of female composers since now I can do so “from the inside,” so that at least feels useful.

    And of course, openly transgender composers are pretty hard to find, so there aren’t as many opportunities to connect with people in my same situation.


    So, thank you for providing this forum and opening up this conversation. If nothing else, you’ve at least given me a chance to get a little off my chest, so many, many thanks for that.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Wow, thank you so much for commenting, j. What an amazing thing – and hard thing – to experience both sides of the coin, so to speak. I think it speaks to the idea that there are a whole lot of things we can transform about ourselves, but some aspects of our psychological makeup are just so ingrained that they don’t want to budge without the most extreme efforts. As you say, *sigh*

      Know that you are SO not the only one who struggles with this issue. While I believe it is more prevalent for women, plenty of men also have a tough time asking for stuff. It’s the response from the outside world to the act of asking that complicates things.

      I’m so glad to hear that this conversation has been helpful for you – that means MUCH to all of us at NewMusicBox. Thank you!

  3. Mark Winges

    Great article, Alex. I went back and looked over the past years of Volti’s Choral Arts Lab program, in terms of who pulls up a chair?. I still have the lists of applicants for each year. Between first names and composer’s websites, one can determine gender.

    It’s a very small sample (the average is about 45 – 50 applicants each year), but the percentage of women applicants hovers around 20% each year for the 11 years we’re been running it. Motivations for deciding to enter are impossible to determine, of course, but the (to me) slightly low percentage seems interesting.

    — Mark Winges

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Jeff, I actually thought about the Amanda Palmer TED talk when I was writing this – thanks for providing the link! While her point is a bit different, it definitely is relevant. And she is one person whom I think we can all agree has no problem asking for anything, and in that regard can serve as an example to everyone, men and women alike.

  4. Paul H. Muller

    This is somewhat off-topic, but I just want to put this out there.

    I am Facebook friends with several women composers and I have found them to be accessible, friendly and most supportive. These are composers much higher up the food chain than I am, but I have found our virtual relationship to be most beneficial – I try to encourage them when I can and they reciprocate.

    I know the discussion here is about opportunity, but this isn’t about money – and anyway money is not part of my artistic equation. But it is about community, and I appreciate that more experienced and accomplished composers take an occasional interest in my work when they could be (rightfully) discouraged about their own professional situation.

    I guess I should say the same about composers who are men – the music business being what it is – but I’m…

    Just Sayin’.

  5. Pingback: Gender parity and new music - Movie 2 Music

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