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Women face serious barriers to reaching the upper echelons of classical composing and conducting. Nicki Mannix, CC BY-SA

The sound of silence: why aren’t Australia’s female composers being heard?

Since 1987, 47 composers have been commissioned to write for the Australia Ensemble – the nation’s leading chamber music ensemble. Forty one of them were men.

Meanwhile, the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music featured only 10 women among the 63 composers in its 2015 program.

Perhaps there just aren’t enough women composers. Yet according to a report from the Victorian Women’s Trust in May this year, 25 to 29% of composition students in Australia are women.

Women’s new music, it seems, is sidelined in professional Australian concert programs. In 2013, for instance, women’s music represented only 11% of the works performed at new music concerts.

A different picture emerges, however, in the listening project Making Waves. Established through crowd funding in 2015, it airs 60-minute playlists from invited Australian composers and specifically asks for an equal mix of men and women. Curated by composers Lisa Cheney and Peggy Polias, male and female composers are heard in equal measure.

Explaining the disparity

Why is there such disparity between Making Waves and the paltry number of women represented in concert programs and commissions? Harriet Langley, in Gender Discrimination in the Classical World (2013) attributes rampant discrimination in the classical world to a reluctance to let go of tradition.

New music is important because it’s written here and now. In the last decade, the number of women studying and working in classical music has risen steadily. Yet bias remains, particularly in composition and conducting. Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov came under fire in 2013 for saying,

the essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness. The important thing is, a woman should be beautiful, likeable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music.

The biological argument has been around for centuries. In 1880, music critic George P Upton wrote that,

women will never originate music in its fullest and grandest forms … there is little hope that she will be a creator.

Pychologist Carl E Seashore agreed. In 1940, Seashore blamed biology for the lack of great women composers. Women, he said, have a fundamental urge to be “beautiful, loved and adored.”

In 2015, a journalist in England responded to a 17-year-old girl’s petition to include women composers in the A-level music syllabus. The journalist commended the girl’s good intentions but went on to disparage the proposed women composers. These included Dame Judith Weir, a highly regarded 21st century composer. On “great women composers”, he wrote:

There may be some in the future, though I’m not sure whether ‘greatness’ is achievable.

Tellingly, the journalist gave no evidence to support his pronouncements. He showed no understanding that he was subscribing to a deeply entrenched culture of sexism.

Johan/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In England, only 7% of recent orchestral commissions were for women. Only 30% of commissioners had an equality and diversity policy.

Is excellence gender neutral? One study has found that excellence is a gendered concept, and unconscious bias informs decisions about what constitutes excellence. Terms like “greatness”, “genius” and “excellence” are not objective criteria.

Visibility is another challenge for women composers. Much of this is attributed to the classical music tradition. Australian composer Anne Boyd notes opportunities and fierce competition for emerging composers. In Boyd’s words,

Composing can become a very congested field. A career can begin with great promise but is very hard to sustain … the most talented are often least suited to the tougher side of the kind of self-promotion, branding … networking and political activity … that brings in the commissions and performances.

Many women, especially those with families, struggle to attain the level of networking required. To quote journalist Clementine Ford, being more inclusive requires a deliberate shift in power:

Equality comes from people either sacrificing their privilege or having it forcibly taken away from them. It does not come from waiting for the oppressed to rise up and meet it.


This year, the Sydney Conservatorium established the National Women Composers’ Development Program to increase the number of women composers. Graduate composers work with established musicians, including composer Moya Henderson and percussionist Claire Edwardes.

In Queensland, Vanessa Tomlinson rebooted her concert series Amazing Women in 2015. That year there were three concerts and 14 new works by woman. Tomlinson’s decision to restart the series - after a hiatus of six years – came after she found that only 5% of graduate recitals at the Queensland Conservatorium featured women composers. This program continues in 2016.

One of Sydney’s premiere new music groups, Ensemble Offspring says it is “acutely aware” of the disparity between male and female composers as represented on concert programs nationally and internationally.

To this end, it has said that 60% of its 2016 programs include music by women. It has also pledged that in 2017, 100% of its programming will be of work by women. Following 2017, it says it will work towards female composers representing 50% of its overall programming.

The solutions need to extend beyond academic institutions. We suggest:

  • Performance groups and organisations representing Australian composers need to let go of tradition and become more aware of gender diversity.

    • For every male composer selected for a performance or commission, there should be a representative number of female composers. Perhaps there should be a quota mandated for government funded institutions that deliver music to audiences.
    • Every music school needs to teach and include women’s music in history and performance courses, and to do so beyond a token amount.
    • Music critics and scholars need to challenge the tradition of effacing women’s music. As academic Lauren Redhead notes, this includes enhancing awareness of the patriarchal discourse.

Finally, there is a need for research into the working lives of composers, particularly women. Without this, it is hard to advocate for changes to funding, education and career support. The International Study of Women Composers is seeking to create a unique picture of the working lives of women. We believe that the evidence it creates will start to achieve these aims.

In an earlier version of this article a figure was used that misrepresented a component of Ensemble Offspring’s activities. We apologise for this error. The article has since been corrected.

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