Today is International Women’s Day, and at the start of this week the PRS Foundation published an evaluation report on the first five years of its Women Make Music initiative to increase the profile and representation of female composers and songwriters in the UK. Compiled on the basis of interviews with 18 Women Make Music grantees, a survey of applicants and grantees, and a review of grantee and applicant summary data, it reveals some stark home truths about the UK music scene, not least that a shocking 78% of interviewees said they had experienced sexism within the industry.
Among classical music composers, a particular issue that was noted was a lack of female role models, as in the following quotation from one grantee, one of the most revealing of all:
I’d been composing for five years before I heard the work of another woman composer.
Another noted that:
A new generation of commissioners would also help. The BBC Proms was described as ‘awash with oestrogen’ when there were three female composers!
I was on a train recently, listening in on a conversation between two other passengers. I forget exactly what the subject was – court judges in the Caribbean, I think – but he was explaining to her that of course there were still many more male judges than female, because that was the legacy of the system, but this was no reason to introduce positive discrimination, which is, he pointed out, still discrimination. The system had to change, obviously, but it still had to award positions to the judiciary on merit. She tried her best to respond, but was given less space in the conversation in which to do so. And I wanted to say to him but don’t you see: your approach (‘merit’, reckoned on the terms of those already sitting in power) just passes the buck back to the system you claim to want to change. It’s saying ‘we know there’s a problem with men being in charge of everything, we’ve heard your complaint, now leave it to us men and we’ll sort it out’.
Independently of all this, last week an old but great xojane post cropped up on my Facebook feed: 35 practical steps men can take to support feminism. It’s a list I fall far short of completing, but it points to what being a (white, cis) male (attempted) feminist means: a constant, and probably uncompletable process of self-improvement, a continual rechecking and recalibrating of unconscious biases.
Those of us who perform, programme and write about new music need to stay vigilant to this. As with the Caribbean judiciary (if that is indeed what was being discussed on that train), many of us are still men. We have a responsibility, I believe, to cede some of that power where we can, or to use it to support our female friends and colleagues. I’m really proud to be involved with a group, Riot Ensemble, that makes improved gender representation a central part of its programming strategy. In 2016, every one of Riot’s concerts included at least one female composer; the programme for last Friday’s concert at The Warehouse was 75% women. It’s not everything and it’s not perfect: that will only happen when our numbers are 50% or better, every concert. Across the whole new music landscape things are starting to change, slowly, but there remains much to do.
And to the response that including a woman composer at your concert means leaving out a very fine piece by a deserving male – which well it might – the answer is simply this: programme more concerts.
As ever, it is in that spirit that I offer this year’s playlist:
Previous playlists can be found here:
(I failed to make a playlist for 2016, sorry.)