Where Are the Maestras? Mellon Targets the Glass Ceiling Facing Female Conductors

In a recent post we looked at the alarming dearth of female composers in the modern classical repertoire. The numbers don't lie. According to a survey of the 22 largest American orchestras, women composers accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014-2015 concert season.

Fortunately, League of American Orchestras, with support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, is working to address this challenge through its Women Composers Readings and Commissions program. But unfortunately, the gender gap isn't limited to this one area in the classical music field. There's an equally disturbing scarcity of female conductors.

According to a 2013 Mother Jones piece, 80 percent of conductors—as well as assistant and substitute conductors—at U.S. orchestras are male. The discrepancy becomes more striking at 103 "high-budget" U.S. orchestras, where 91 percent of conductors were male across the 2012-2013 season. And guess how many female conductors held the baton at the 22 "highest-budget" U.S. orchestras during the same time frame? Just one.

That would be Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, who, as of 2013, had the distinction of being the only female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra.

Those of us who track the funding priorities of major arts foundations look at this data, and after shaking our heads in bewilderment, conclude, "This looks like a job for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."

After all, of one Mellon's primary goals is shattering glass ceilings—gender-related or otherwise—wherever they exist across the arts and cultural space, whether in the curatorial field or the humanities. The foundation has taken a particularly keen interest in boosting minority representation in the classical music world as well. Back in July it awarded the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) a combined $900,000 grant to pilot a groundbreaking collaborative fellowship program aimed at developing young, graduate-level musicians from underrepresented populations and preparing them for the professional orchestra world.

Which brings us back to the gender gap in the world of conducting. Mellon also just awarded the Dallas Opera a $500,000 grant over a three-year period in support of the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera. This new initiative is designed to "support the career aspirations and advancement of female conductors, while addressing the problems resulting from gender inequality at the top of the profession."

The inaugural institute kicked off in December with participants—six institute fellows and four additional American observers—selected from more than 100 qualified applicants in 27 countries. Opera officials say there is no comparable program today for addressing the needs of talented young female conductors seeking to make their mark on the world’s top opera organizations. 

Click here for more information on the program.