‘Women conductors are not my cup of tea’. Classical music’s gender inequality problem

Conductor Mariss Jansons today receives the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Gold Medal at London’s Barbican Centre. The Latvian conductor will become the 104th recipient of the medal. Jansons is currently chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Classical Music magazine describes how, in an interview for The Telegraph, Ivan Hewett asked Jansons how he felt about ‘the biggest change in the conducting scene’ – the increase in female conductors over Jansons’s career.

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

Is it a problem that someone with such attitudes is receiving one of classical music’s most prestigious awards? And what does this say about the classical music world?

First of all, it’s interesting that the increase in female conductors is seen as a big change. As Christina Scharff’s research shows, only 1.4% of conductors working professional today in the UK are women. If this is a big change, then we need cataclysmic change.

However, in order to make sense of Jansons’ comment, we need to think about the symbolic role of the conductor. Conductors are figures of male authority that work as a powerful model for how we think about authority in society more widely. Just look at business and management studies journals – there is enormous interest in how conductors gain such (seemingly) tight control over their workers. Conductors even run workshops for business leaders, to show them how it’s done – I participated in such workshops during my career as a musician. In my research with young people playing in classical music groups, there was enormous trust and respect towards their (male) conductors, which in some instances amounted to what one participant called a ‘cult of personality’. This means that gender inequality among conductors has a wider impact than just within classical music.

In recent weeks, however, we have seen reporting of widespread sexual harassment throughout society, perpetrated by men in positions of power. This shows one of the costs of such authority being so highly valued in society, and the effects of what this mode of authority can lead to.

Therefore, a conductor making such a statement is, in effect, endorsing high levels of gender inequality and the high costs for many women that come along with this. By comparison with other sectors we can see how unacceptable this statement would be elsewhere. If the leader of British political party said ‘female prime ministers are not my cup of tea’, that would do damage to their career. We see no comparable damage to Jansons’ career – far from it, as he accepts his gold medal. This award therefore shows that attitudes that would be unacceptable in wider society are condoned – even celebrated – in classical music.


Update: Jansons has published a statement saying “it was undiplomatic, unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I’m not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform. Every one of my female colleagues and every young woman wishing to become a conductor can be assured of my support, for we all work in pursuit of a common goal: to excite people for the art form we love so dearly – music.”

I am glad to see this statement, and I look forward to seeing Jansons supporting women conductors as well as others from marginalised groups by offering mentoring, booking them as guest conductors, and more generally showing the leadership that his position allows on equality issues.

‘Women conductors are not my cup of tea’. Classical music’s gender inequality problem

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