Eimear Noone

Equality on the Podium

This is an adaptation of a speech Lydia Connolly gave at the Association of British Orchestra's annual conference in Cardiff, on 26 January 2018
6 February 2018

2018 marks the centenary of the UK’s Representation of the People Act whereby men over the age of 21 were given the right to vote. Women got the vote too – but with conditions attached: they had to be over 30 and they had to be householders. It wasn’t until ten years later, in 1928, that every woman over the age of 21 was granted the right to vote. 

You might say that this was all a very long time ago – surely today women are getting an equal deal, “enough” of a say and  “enough” opportunities to become leaders in any field they choose? But in  March 2017 the ICSA, the Governance Institute, revealed  that there are more men named John running FTSE 100 companies than there are women running them.  

Some very respected colleagues have suggested to me during the last 12 months that, “surely there are plenty of women conductors these days?”  Do they mean “enough”?

In fact the statistics reveal that still this year there are only 4 titled women amongst the 63 British orchestras who are members of the Association of British Orchestras … and less than 6% of conductors represented by British agencies are women.

This month the LA Times published an interview piece with Susanna Mälkki, Principal Guest Conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic – in which she is described as “cracking open a little bit wider classical music’s thickest, most stubborn glass ceiling”.

So what is our problem?

Just about every orchestra manager and presenter my HarrisonParrott (HP) colleagues and I have spoken to on this topic during the last year has wholeheartedly agreed that there should be more women on the podium. And surely we’re all working in a thoroughly progressive and liberal environment? Not everyone is nearly so lucky: I could point, for example, to Zohra – the first Afghan women’s orchestra – whose members risk their lives every day by making music under a regime in which music is banned.

So why do those female conductor percentages stick so stubbornly in the low single digits? What is it about conducting women that the industry is still finding it so difficult to get over? 

I think there’s still a very significant perception problem: it is difficult to imagine a more immediately visible and physical representation of a woman in a position of authority and power than a female conductor. And unfortunately this is something which seems to trigger an irrational feeling of resistance in some men AND some women. The fact is that everyday sexism – unconscious bias – lazy stereotyping – is even more pervasive, insidious and difficult to deal with than in your face, out and out discrimination and prejudice.

Women in any walk of life who have achieved a position of influence themselves have special responsibility for supporting and empowering others. Madeleine Albright famously stated that “There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other!” But in the case of conducting women there’s a special kind of dilemma: no conductor worth her salt wants to be identified, or to identify, as a “female conductor”.  She wants to be known as simply – a “great conductor”.  I totally concur – gender should be irrelevant - and our goal must be to create a music business where there should be no need even to think about the gender of the person on the podium. Talent, musicianship, vision, artistic leadership – they should speak for themselves.  But until we arrive at that point when gender really doesn’t come into it, I believe we have to tackle the issue of inequality positively and constructively.  

So we at HarrisonParrott have asked ourselves, “What can we do?” It’s important to point out that this is part of a broader commitment HP is undertaking to address equality, diversity and inclusivity in our industry. We have resolved that, amongst the new artists we’ll take on during 2018, we will include three new women conductors. Not just because they are women! – that would be abject tokenism and would undermine the whole objective. But because – like any other artist joining the HP roster – they are outstanding musicians, compelling personalities, and because we believe they have the potential to be important, successful, creative, influential contributors to our industry. This does not mean they have to be the finished article. There are still far too many voices suggesting that, “If there’s going to be another woman conductor on the market then she’s REALLY going to have to be exceptional …” – as if a woman has to be better than her male peer to be taken as seriously. This reminds me of the 1918 act: yes, women can vote… but they have to be 30 first and they have to be a householder. There are conditions attached. Our response is clear: a woman has to be as good to be taken as seriously. And we should be ready to take a punt on a promising young conducting woman in the same way as for many, many years we have taken punts on promising young conducting men.

The complementary part of HP’s scheme is to secure support from an international network of orchestras and other presenters who will commit to booking at least one of these new HP conducting women by the end of 2020. We have to see results. It certainly helps to talk about the need for a change in the ratio – but if we don’t deliver tangible progress then we’re not properly tackling the problem.

I’m delighted to report that already in January 2018 our sister company Polyarts announced the signing of a new conducting woman: Eímear Noone- who is Irish-born and for some years now based in California. She’s a conductor, composer, producer and speaker – working not only with classical scores but also film, television and video game music. As it happens, the field of film and video game music has even fewer women involved than the traditional classical, symphonic arena. We are extremely proud to represent such an influential and creative woman in this increasingly important part of the music industry.

You might ask what’s in it for HP? Quite apart from being the right thing to do to encourage equality and diversity on the podium as well as everywhere else in our field, and the positive economic prospects for our business, there’s a bonus. When it was decided to create a taskforce within HP to look at what we could do to address equality and diversity, there was immediate interest shown by many of our youngest generation of colleagues - who themselves represent such a broad range of cultural backgrounds. Since then each of them has regularly input ideas, leads, thoughts and references to the group. It’s clear that this is a way in which all three generations represented within HP can meaningfully engage with one another: younger members of staff feel properly empowered to contribute to the company’s vision and mission. 

Nevertheless I do have another area of concern specifically relating to the millennials in our music industry. I had assumed that all those twenty-somethings at least would be getting it right – and when my own sons came out of university practically more feminist than I am, I felt that the future should be in safe hands. But I was in for a shock. At a Women in Music conference last Autumn, a twenty-something woman in the audience spoke up about how encouraged and energised she had been by the conference, how motivated and empowered she felt by the stories, the advice and the support … but that there was still a dark cloud hanging over her because she knew that when she returned to her (prestigious British ) campus  she would be one of only two women on her music course and that she would go back to the routine  banter, prejudice and discrimination which she and her female colleague endured every day in the course of their studies.  I was incredulous – and dismayed … but the more I’ve spoken about this with students, colleagues, academics and industry friends, the more I’ve come to suspect that within music departments specifically in our universities there are still – in some institutions at least –  the kind of negative attitudes towards women  you might have thought went out in 1975.

On a more encouraging note – one of the great things I’ve discovered this past year is that there are so many individuals in the music and arts industry who are each in their own way working incredibly hard and creatively to tackle the challenges of equality and inclusivity.  The more we can all get to know about what they are doing, and share and build on their findings, ideas and innovations the better it will be for the industry as a whole. We know that our business is increasingly all about relationships and communication – we should keep remembering to look up from our own desks to see where we can find inspiration and support  from colleagues, especially in neighbouring disciplines. 

In October 2017 Deborah Borda, still at the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was able to announce that  “More women will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season than the symphonies of Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Nashville, Oregon, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic combined.”  If the Los Angeles Philharmonic can manage that – why can’t others?

And something very important to add in conclusion - George Bernard Shaw said: “Every time you ask a man to appear on your platform, you consent the insufficiency of women to plead their own cause”. I would qualify that: if a man takes the platform instead of a woman, we may question it – but in my view, to have men on this particular platform alongside women is the only way we will really succeed in moving forward.

Lydia Connolly

Director, HarrisonParrott