One of the televised Proms on my to-watch list (which grows longer a lot quicker than I manage to watch any of it) is various chunks of modernism conducted by one Susanna Malkki (I accept no blame if that’s misspelt). It’s largely there because the conductor is a woman and that’s so unusual in professional classical music.
Back in 2003, I was playing with the then Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now the rather verbose Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra). A new conductor was being recruited, and a shortlist of 5 or 6 candidates were invited to take chunks of a rehearsal, with the orchestra’s feedback being considered. One of them was a woman. She certainly wasn’t the worst in the field – no positive-discrimination token presence – but she wasn’t appointed and as I recall that didn’t surprise us.
Overall, professional orchestras are getting quite even on gender balance, despite the exclusive old-fashioned image and the long history of utter sexism (Britain’s first female professional orchestral musician, a viola player, was hired around the first world war, giving less than a hundred years of mixed orchestral history). That’s my unscientific impression anyway. Women are still rare, as far as my TV and occasional concert watching suggests, in the heavy brass and percussion; but they make up around half or even slightly more of woodwinds and strings and are pretty well spread across instruments there. I have the impression that the women players tend to be younger on average than the men, and that the conservatoires have a real female gender skew (like most quite academic sectors of UK education), which suggests that those proportions may increase and cause female predominance in time.
Still not that many female star soloists though, except singers where there isn’t direct male competition (no castrati any more thank God). A fairly decent number of violinists and cellists, the odd pianist but definitely in a minority. And I really think more active respected female composers than conductors now, which is striking given how very few well-known composers there are from before about 1900 (er, Hildegard von Bingen … Clara Schumann maybe … erm?).
I’m very reluctant to enter into possible reasons for this, not least because it’s so very difficult to avoid making sweeping gender generalisations of character (of precisely the kind that, as a man, I bitterly resent!). But the fact is observable, and made more odd by the contrast with other musical roles and indeed to some extent with the good-amateur sector, especially choral conductors. Is it that there is a glass ceiling on female conductors; or as a career path, is it rather that the women are choosing to climb other ladders?
Either way it would be very hard to deny that music is the poorer for the vast majority of its professional musical directors being drawn from just under half the population (regardless of other under-represented groups).