Equality Now!

Volume 118, No. 9September, 2018

Women face real discrimination in the music world related to both gender and age. It’s time to change that. But first, we have to admit that the problem exists.

In 1930, Harpist Edna Phillips made history when she became the first female member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the first time a woman played as a regular member of a major symphony orchestra in the United States. Over the intervening decades, women have made substantial inroads in most corners of our field, but especially in orchestras, thanks to the implementation of screened auditions in the early 1970s. The New York Philharmonic now employs 47 percent women, and as of 2014, women outnumbered men in the St. Louis Symphony. Contrast that with the approximately 24 percent of women who play on Broadway. Only 22 percent of club date musicians are female, and they work substantially less often than their male counterparts. The music business is still overwhelmingly a male-dominated profession, particularly in the rough and tumble milieus of club dates and Broadway, where hiring and firing are done by mostly male contractors and music directors.

Only a few decades ago, gender discrimination was quite overt and accepted. One musician told me that a contractor once refused to hire her because doing so would “take a job away from a man.” While not as pervasive today, those attitudes are still alive and well in some areas. Women have a more difficult time breaking in, maintaining steady work, and being taken seriously than their male peers. Once they finally get established, it isn’t long before they find themselves irrelevant after a certain birthday.

The ramifications of these archaic attitudes are not limited to the extreme consequences of women being fired or harassed. They often show up in more subtle ways, such as when ideas expressed by women are ignored or belittled. Leadership behavior that is admired as strong and competent in a man is still seen as vulgar or pushy coming from a woman.

Add to this societal problem an aging population and the workplace complications multiply. There has been a noticeable uptick in age and gender specific discrimination complaints lately. Some examples are cited below. (Details have been slightly altered to protect confidentiality.)

  • An orchestra on the West Coast circulated a memo advising only the older women in the orchestra to dye their hair and buy new concert clothes.
  • A music director on Broadway suddenly deems all female substitutes unacceptable without giving any reason or explanation. They are all over 40.
  • The newly-appointed male conductor of a local orchestra fires five female musicians, all of whom are aged 50 or over, without cause and without going through the contractual dismissal procedure.
  • A female cellist of a certain age is passed over for backup work because the producer wanted a certain “look” while the same standard clearly didn’t apply to the men hired for the same job.
  • The conductor of a very prestigious orchestra is offering buyouts to a group of older musicians who, from all accounts, are still at the peak of their careers.
  • A conductor consistently violates contractual language and seats younger players in front of (older) rostered players.

Age discrimination in particular is very difficult to prove. Most music directors know enough to refrain from making overt age-related remarks in public, but once musicians begin to sprout a few gray hairs, the maestro may begin to notice “changes” in their playing. This seems to happen up to a decade earlier for women than it does for men. Notes from the podium may start to appear, often in the guise of helping to “improve” performance: “I notice your bow is not with the rest of the section” or “I’ve been hearing some wrong notes lately.” Certainly age can take its toll on one’s performance abilities, but so can illness, injury, performance anxiety, and any number of personal issues. Nearly every contract has artistic dismissal language to address those problems in the most equitable way possible. The fact is, the same alleged “bowing problems” or whatever the complaint may be, are more often forgiven if the perpetrator is a pretty young woman or under 40 and male.

While the union will fight these cases to the fullest extent possible, age discrimination is primarily an issue for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, meaning the victim must invest time and money in pursuit of justice. There have been some notable victories (see Harvey Mars’s article from the April 2018 issue), but the burden of proof is high and most musicians choose to move on rather than engage in an expensive, time-consuming legal battle.

(A brief word to millennials: you may not think this song is about you, but you will be dealing with this issue before you know it. Is this how you would want to be treated in a few years? Let’s fix it before you get there!)

Obviously, the problem is pervasive and not unique to musicians (see: Hillary Clinton). While we may not be able to change the world, we can improve our corner of it with some serious introspection and enlightenment. Admitting that the problem exists is a beginning. We must have zero tolerance for men in positions of power who see and treat women as less than equal. Men can be more cognizant of their behavior towards women (including how we are discussed when we are not around), and women can be more aggressive in calling out discriminatory and bullying behavior. Conductors should make sure they are listening with their ears rather than with their eyes. Perhaps the most effective action women themselves can take is to begin seeking out positions of power as general managers, personnel managers, contractors and conductors. Don’t be shy about networking, it’s the name of the game. And always play great. Eventually, you will be heard above the naysayers.

Women simply want to be treated with the same respect and dignity bestowed upon our male colleagues, regardless of gender or the changing color of our hair. Age brings confidence, knowledge, wisdom and insight that can’t be learned in a conservatory. These qualities can only be gained through time and experience and are wholly beneficial to our organizations.

Karen Fisher is the senior concert rep at Local 802. Contact her at (212) 245-4802, ext. 174.