Things are better for women conductors now, but outdated ideas of hierarchy still get in the way. As told to Jessica Duchen
I’d wanted to be a conductor since I was 11. I played in a youth orchestra that had a female conductor, so it never occurred to me that there might be barriers to women in the profession and I must have been half way through my music degree before it struck me.
I think the main challenge for women who want to conduct is that people do stick to outdated ideas of hierarchy. It affects women in all professions and all leadership positions. I’ve got a good post now, but if I’d been a bloke I’m sure my progress would have been more rapid. Quite openly people have said to me on various occasions: ‘No, we’re not going to consider you for this job because we want a man.’ This was well after anti-discrimination legislation had been introduced.
I’m glad to say that hasn’t happened for a few years now. When I won my current job, the papers ran plenty of stories about me, but they never mentioned that I was a woman. It just wasn’t an issue. I thought ‘Hooray’ and breathed a sigh of relief.
Twice, though, I’ve had gigs cancelled after refusing to sleep with someone who was in a position of power and had offered to help me. One was my conducting teacher, I was an assistant conductor to the other, and both were married, with kids. I was at the stage when what I needed was to do a public concert with a professional orchestra; each could help with that. In both cases I had the date, the repertoire and the halls and had been contacted by the manager to set things up. Then there were explicit invitations to go to bed, and I said no. A short time later the concerts were cancelled. That was a huge shock. I’d never imagined that something specific would be required in return; maybe I was naive, but I thought I was being encouraged because I was a good musician.
At one summer course the conductor in charge was blatant in saying that the way you get a conducting career is to have somebody pushing for you behind the scenes ‒ someone who can introduce you to agents, nudge orchestra CEOs, write recommendations, etc. He was equally blatant in demonstrating this: he picked three members of the class to whom he gave most of the podium time plus the important concerts when agents were there ‒ and they went on to have very decent careers. The rest of us thought it was outrageous. What about all our hard work? But he’s saying ‘Forget it ‒ this is what counts’?
As for competitions, the winners always have some kind of patron in the organisation. The first two I entered were won respectively by a student of a jury member and a student of the jury chairman. One competition further east was won by someone who’d suddenly started sporting expensive leather jackets and was being driven around by shady-looking guys in a black Mercedes. It may sound like a spy drama, but he won ‒ and he obviously had powerful backers whom nobody wanted to cross.
I may not have the career I originally wanted, but though there’s been a heap of frustration, there are plenty of rewards too. I do interesting work and I love it. I’ve done lots of new music, lots of weird and wonderful repertoire and lots of education work ‒ I seem to be good at that and I was surprised by how much I enjoy it. This all came about because people asked me to do things while I was looking in a different direction, beating my head against a brick wall. I don’t have a career plan. I had one and it didn’t work out, because that’s not how a career works.
I’ve always concentrated on the music first, but clearly the business is not just about either music or talent. We only get ahead with people opening doors and pulling strings. And if we don’t have those people then we aren’t going to make that kind of career. End of story.
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