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Vienna aside, are there still too few women in top orchestras?

A survey in today’s low-circulation Independent newspaper tries to argue that women are somehow still being barred from the best seats in the band. Miranda Kiek rustles up the following statistics:

Berlin Phil 14% women

Dresden      28%

LSO              29%

Russian National 36%

Boston, Chicago, LA Phil 40+%

Given that (Vienna aside) there is no overt prejudice against women in orchs and most auditions are conducted unseen, it would seem that the glass ceiling has been shattered and that the only disincentive to women joining an orchestra is their individual career decisions.

As wages are squeezed in the orchestral sector, and travel increases, it could be that young women musicians are looking elsewhere for a living, or choosing to play part-time. I have no proof for this beyond hearsay, but I don’t think this is (Vienna excepted) the equality issue that this article pretends it to be.

Or is it? Are there orchestras where women still feel uncomfortable, and under-represented?

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  1. I think you’d need some more data in order to come to any valid conclusion, like, what percentage of applicants for any given were women? What percentage (if any) of women left their orchestral jobs while still young as compared to men? What are the percentages, by instrument, for young musicians graduating from top conservatories? What are the breakdowns for both music teachers and soloists?

    And the kicker: how often does it happen that, after the final round of an orchestral audition, where the conductor (in many orchestras) gets to choose from however many candidates receive enough votes–how often does the conductor choose the only man in a pool of equally or more qualified women?

  2. By comparison, most of the amateur orchestras I’ve played in (10 or so, not a huge sample I admit) have had a sizeable majority of women players, except in the brass sections, which have been entirely male with one sole exception.

    Even my local brass band has more than 60% women; however, it’s a non-competing band. In the competing bands I’ve played with, it’s been a much larger proportion of men. Given the comparative time and lifestyle commitments required of pro vs am orchestras and competing vs non competing bands, there might well be more than a grain of truth in what you’re saying.


  3. We see here a common pattern. Women make some progress in a field, then people assume everything is settled and close the door on the issue well before equality is achieved.

    It’s true that the ratios for women in orchestras have improved a lot over the last 20 years. In the mid 80s women represented on average about 16% of orchestra personnel which has now grown to about 30%. Wide-spread negative publicity helped bring change, such as the Vienna Philharmonic’s discrimination, the poor treatment of Abbie Conant in the Munich Philharmonic, and the exclusion of Sabine Meyer from the Berlin Philharmonic. Even though consciousness was raised and led to needed changes in the classical music world as a whole, a more differentiated view shows that serious problems still exist:

    1. There are still three iconic orchestras that continue to discriminate and have very low m/f ratios: The Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic (about 6% and 4% respectively,) The Czech Philharmonic (12%,) and the Berlin Philharmonic (14%.) The ratios for women among new hires in these orchestras are also far below international norms. Between 2005 and 2009, the Berlin Phil’s ratio was even lower than the Vienna Phils. And yet all of these orchestras are highly subsidized by their respective governments. (In fact, the Austrian Federal Government owns and operates the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.)

    2. Women are not being hired by orchestras in proportion to their representation in music schools. Women now represent up to 70% of the high string and wood wind classes, but the ratio of new hires in orchestras is only about half that – or less in a number of cases.

    3. Women are still massively underrepresented in some instrument groups such as the brass, particularly trumpets, trombones, and tubas where their presence in top orchestras ranges from 1 to 3%.

    4. Women conductors are still rare and very few are at the top of the field. Simone Young and Marin Alsop come closest, but there are no women at all in the top echelon.

    The Vienna Philharmonic’s New Years Concert is viewed by 50 million people each year. There are usually about two women on stage. This wide-spread image is very harmful and has barely changed in the 15 years since the orchestra agreed to admit women. It says a good deal about the classical music world and what women still face that this situation meets with so little protest.

    Even outside of brass instruments, women can still face remarkably discriminatory attitudes. Until recently, the Berlin Philharmonic cellists, who perform around the world as a ensemble, prided themselves on being an all male group. In an interview with Birgitta Tolan of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in 2003, their first cellist at the time, Georg Faust, said that if a woman entered the ensemble its character would be destroyed:

    “Of course – we are all human beings. If you are a group of twelve men, and one woman comes in, I am absolutely sure it will change the whole situation. It will change the image because part of our success is that we are 12 men. We can easily see this when we go to Japan. We are like a boy group.”
    The journalist asked him if they were like the “Berlin Back Street Boys”:

    “Yes. Back Street violoncellists. Boy group. Because the audience is 90 % women. So this shows that this kind of energy we produce as 12 men – as 12 cellists – and 12 men, is something very strong, is very homogenous and very unique in a way. Like a football team: The same instruments, it’s 12 players of the same instrument. It’s always a feeling of concurrence and yet competition. Always a certain kind of pressure. Because everybody knows the other person very, very well. He knows what he can do and what he can’t do. They are like 12 dogs. They all need their certain room and they all have their ‘revier’.”

    The Berlin Phil Cellists literally presented themselves as if they were some sort of cello-playing Chippendales. The ratio in the section is now 11 to 2 so many assume that solves the problem. Unfortunately, sexism doesn’t pop like a soap bubble. Its effects linger long after integration begins. Women can still be “hounded,” as it were.

    Tokenism is another serious problem, as evidenced by Sarah Willis (the hornist in the Berlin Phil) who was interviewed in the above mentioned article. She is the only woman in the brass and percussion section, a ratio of 23 to 1. Small minorities in larger groups almost always focus much more on fitting in than struggling for equality. They usually focus on their prestige and status as a member of an elite group which would likely be tarnished by protest. For more about the sociology of tokenism see:

    This problem is compounded in orchestras because they are highly regimented, hierarchical, and authoritarian. If an orchestra musician stands apart, they are often strongly ostracized and their work atmosphere becomes difficult to the extreme. These factors help explain why Ms. Willis sees no problems and is such a happy Queen Bee.

    The Vienna Philharmonic consciously exploits this form of tokenism. In 2008 the Vienna State Opera Orchestra created a sensation by hiring a woman concertmaster. Since then, they have completely stopped hiring women, except for one woman harpist. (The orchestra has always used women harpists because male harpists are difficult to find.)

    Danailova’s employment has been an effective public relations device for resisting change, and fits with sociological models that suggest isocratic groups form controlled relationships with outsiders to mutually enhance their image and status. Like Ms. Willis, Ms. Danailova fulfills her function by never voicing of word of criticism. She even denies that gender should be an issue in discussions of the Vienna Philharmonic. This problem is compounded because members of the orchestra are only allowed to give interviews if the Chairman of the orchestra, Clemens Hellsberg, is present to hear what they say. As an example of Ms. Danailova’s comments, see this article:–albena-danailova-oder-glauben-sie–ich-sei-ein-mann-,10810590,10609934.html

    It should also be noted that fully blind auditions are almost non-existent. The auditions are usually held in three rounds, and almost invariably the screen is removed for the third. Musicians generally feel they need to see the performer to fully judge his or her qualities. By seeing the performer they can analyze issues such as bowing technique, embouchure formations, the type of instruments used, and the musicians poise under pressure. Of course, many other less objective factors can enter which in orchestras like the Vienna, Berlin, and Czech Philharmonics include sexism. And even in orchestras that are less sexist, there can still be strong, unconscious, negative impressions when seeing women playing instruments coded as male, such as the trombone or tuba, even when women are the best candidates.

    There are many other factors to this discussion (and I should include footnotes,) but for this forum I should keep this as brief as possible. People should not jump to the superficial conclusion that the issue of equality for women in orchestras is solved. Welcomed progress has been made, but there is still much work to do. Thank you Norman, for raising and discussing this issue – something that is sadly rare in the classical music world, which is yet another problem women face.

    • William, you wrote “People should not jump to the superficial conclusion that the issue of equality for women in orchestras is solved.”, and I believe you are perfectly right. But the same caveat should also apply to conclusions drawn from statistics (and for interpretations of personal statements with the help of some sociological theories IMHO as well). I’ll give you an example of my immediate personal experience:
      Some time ago the principal English horn position in my orchestra became open. The majority of the applicants were female, and among the roughly 25 players invited to the audition were only two males. Since I’m also able to consider statistics, the odds of having a female colleague on this position in the future seemed overwhelming, and hardly less so after it became apparent after the removal of the screen that there was one male and five female players left in the run. And I can assure you that this prospect didn’t bother me the least little bit, and I doubt that it could have bothered anyone else as well since we already had had three female colleagues with temporary contracts on that very job before it finally became open. Everybody had been very happy with all three of them. But it now happened that the last male applicant was simply by far the strongest player in every respect, and so he won the audition fair and square. To make things even worse, his runner up was our last English horn player on time contract, a person liked by everybody who had also done a really good job. Therefore the decision to remain fair, keep the auditioning process open to EVERY applicant, and simply hire the best regardless of any possible personal inclination was a very hard one to make that day. Do you think we should have done otherwise, only because the winner was NOT a woman? Yet if you analyze the audition merely from a statistical angle, it looks about as bad as it could.
      PS: Please give my best to Abbie. I met her in 1992 at the Cantiere d’Arte in Montepulciano.

      • The best player should always win, but of course we can’t draw conclusions from your single, anecdotal example. Interestingly, the vast majority of student oboe players in Austria are also women. They play the Vienna oboe, which is not used anywhere else, and which is an essential component of the Vienna Phil’s sound. Without hiring women, the orchestra’s stylistic future is in jeopardy. Let’s hope that the tradition of sexism will be surrendered to the orchestra’s tradition of sound.

        • I have presented my single, anecdotal example for the only reason that it shows the difference between statistics and the reality of life. The statistics of our audition – less than 10% male applicants, one male out of six contestants in the finals, and still the job goes to the guy in the end – suggest very strongly a bias against women. Yet in reality the bias which had to be overcome – for the winner by means of an excellent performance, and for the orchestra in a conscious effort to decide in as fairly as possible – was in favour of the female runner up. My personal conclusion from this and other anecdotes is that one is on very unsafe grounds drawing conclusions from statistics that go beyond the direct contents of the data. If the statistics prove, and I’m ready to believe you, that for instance Vienna Phil hasn’t hired a woman since Ms. Danailova’s employment, it is safe to state just that. But I don’t think it is correct to conclude from this without any further proof that this employment serves in general to avoid hiring more women. And provided your numbers are correct which I’m ready to believe, it is safe to state that Berlin Phil will still have a long way to go towards gender equality. But concluding from their recent 14% that they are at this point deliberately trying to avoid hiring women wouldn’t convince me. BTW, I can’t help wondering whether Ms. Danailova and Ms. Willis won’t feel belittled and disrespected by their statements not being taken seriously at all but instead being labeled as “tokenism” and dismissed as such. I certainly wouldn’t feel good about it.

          • Thank you for your interesting thoughts, Gerhard. The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, of course, would not want any conclusions drawn about the low m/f ratios for their personnel and new hires. With a form of moral myopia, we are to look at the numbers and see nothing more. We are not to draw any hypotheses or conclusions from the data, nor even discuss how reasonable they might be. And of course, all presumably all in the name of science and objectivity…

            To illustrate with a graphic example, I suppose at some point under Pinochet, people noticed some of their friends and neighbors were missing. And I’m sure the government would have liked them to simply observe that fact and not draw any suspicions or conclusions. These forms of reasoning, of course, are just another form of denial. The statistical data for the m/f ratios in the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic clearly allow us to draw relatively reasonable hypotheses and conclusions – however much the orchestras might like those views silenced.

            Another interesting example for discussion might be Fritz Trümpli’s recent book about the histories of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic’s during the Third Reich. He presents an enormous amount of material from their archives, but provides very little contextualization or analysis in terms of the larger spans of the orchestras’ histories. He offers few possible explanations for why these two orchestras collaborated so strongly, even though these are urgent moral and historical questions.

            At this point in time, with so many toes still to be stepped on, and with the analytical problems so complex, Mr. Trümpli’s caution is probably justifiable. We will probably need to wait many years before the objectivity is found to write more complete histories about such topics. The sexism in the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic’s, however, are a different matter, because the situation, though complex, is far more limited, and is not beyond the ability of people to formulate reasonable theories and concrete deductions – even if the orchestras and their supporters do not want to hear them.

            Regarding your other point, I’m sure that Ms. Willis and Ms. Danailova are annoyed by my comments. I know how difficult it can be to address sexism in orchestras, because my wife and I have, and we have paid a very heavy price for it. It ended my career as a composer in Germany. We also know our efforts have done a considerable amount of good. In Ms. Danailova’s case, I find her reticence acceptable because she is under such intense observation and control by the orchestra’s authorities. She is a great player and fully deserves her position, but she is also obviously being used as a public relations alibi by the orchestra and they do not want that function damaged. If she broke from their control, they would make her pay a heavy price. And again, I speak from experience.

            I have more trouble with Ms. Willis’ stance because she has long been tenured and is in a much better position to address the issues. Given the nature of orchestras, it might be reasonable for her not to make too many waves, but there are tactful and at least indirect statements she could make that would be helpful. Instead, as evidenced in the article in the Independent, she actually helps the orchestra gloss over its sexism. Silence would be preferable.

            Or are we to believe the low m/f ratio in the Berlin Phil is because German women do not have the ability or desire to play in their country’s top orchestra? Or even better, are we to look at the numbers and not draw any hypotheses or conclusions at all, even if they seem relatively reasonable? How convenient.

    • Just a small point. The VPO hasn’t, as you stated, “always used women harpists”.
      Xavier de Maistre was their solo harpist from 1999 to 2010.
      But he left to pursue his solo career.

      • Anna Lelkes was one of their harpists for close to 30 years and reitred in the late 90s. (The orchestra employs two harpists.) She was the first woman to be made a member of the orchestra. For 26 years she was only allowed to be an associate of the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1997 she was made a member in response to the international protests against the orchestra. The orchestra then went 10 years without making another woman a memeber. The next was violist Ursula Plaichinger in 2007. Ten years without appointing another woman, and yet some of the gentlemen here see no sexism. It demonstrates why advocacy is still needed.

        • I totally agree with you.
          I was just — for the sake of the facts — pointing out that Xavier de Maistre was their solo harpist for a substantial period.

  4. You would need a far broader set of figures to really demonstrate anything. I haven’t really stopped to count myself, but it seems many orchestras in the UK are pretty much 50:50 these days, and in Scandinavia there are some places where the girls are outnumbering the guys. Actually, apparently some people involved in secondary education in Finland are worried that too few boys are getting involved in classical music, and that orchestras will be dominated by women rather than men in the future. Who knows? You can pick whatever figures you want and paint a picture.

    However, there are way too few female conductors. Still. Why is that?

    • A table with the m/f ratios for 35 major international orchestras is here:

      The average for women in 2009 was exactly 30.0%, up from 26.09% in 2005. We are thus seeing an increase of about 1% per year across a broad spectrum of orchestras (though there are very large differences between orchestras.) Attrition in orchestras due to retirement and other causes averages about 3 to 4 % per year. Women are thus winning about a quarter to a third of the auditions overall, but the numbers seem to be rising.

      The UK has the highest ratio of women orchestra members in the world at 38.89%. It also has the major orchestra that has the highest ratio of women in the world, the BBC London, where women have 50% of the positions. It would be a mistake to assume the situation in the UK applies everywhere. There is general progress, but it is not so far along in some other countries.

      One pattern I’ve noticed is that women are congregated in orchestras that have lower status and/or pay. For example, the orchestras in the Ruhrgebeit of Germany, which is considered a less desirable place to live, have the higher ratios for women than any other area. Forty percent of the personnel in the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz are women, but in the nearby prestigious Vienna Philharmonic the ratio is 4%. I think there might also be a correlation with the London orchestras if one compared their status with their m/f ratios. This might be why the BBC London has so many more women than the LSO. (Of course, they’ll all argue about what the pecking order is, but that’s another topic.)

      • I forgot to mention that there is a table for the m/f ratios of the UK orchestras here:

        • Do you also have a table for how many African American (about 12% of the US population, correct?) musicians are in American orchestras? I saw the NY Phil the other day – they had one, a very good first clarinetist. Turns out he was a guest though…And no female brass players at all. Just all white dudes. A few days later, I saw the CSO. They also had one, a trumpet player (and he actually has a job there). And one female horn player! What say you about that?

          • I think the ratios in the USA are appalling. African-Americans represent only 2% of the personnel in major US orchestras, even though most work in cities where 50% of the population or more is black. In Detroit the population is 82.7% black and the orchestra about 98% white. It is hardly surprising that the orchestra is having trouble. I’ve written a lot about this problem. Here is an example that was featured here on ArtsJournal:


            The New York Phil brass section recently had two women brass players. Both were fired during their trial year under circumstances that are more horrific than any I have ever heard. One of the women had to get a restraining order against one of her colleagues because she felt sexually threatened by him. The other women stood in solidarity with her. Both were fired. I so wish I could write about this, but I am still gathering information.

            I have noticed that people often want to turn these discussions into nationalistic repartee about who is better. In some cases, international statistical comparisons are very informative, but on the whole nationalism is a distasteful to me, so forgive me if I do not participate in conversations that drift in that direction.

          • William, please keep us posted about the NY Phil situation.

        • What about France? I haven’t counted the number of female musicians in the major Paris orchestras on their websites and I am about to board a plane, but I have the impression that they do have quite a few ladies. The Orchestre National has a number of female section leaders including one of the concertmasters (and I remember seeing them in the 80s they also had a lady leading them) and principal bass – but maybe that is not the whole picture because these ladies are more “visible” in those positions.

    • I felt compelled to do some research. The current numbers of women in four Finnish orchestras, according to their web sites as of today:

      Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, 40 of 97 (41 %). Includes one woman trombone player of Danish descent, one trumpet player of Japanese descent and a double bass player and a horn player of Finnish descent.

      Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, 33 of 99 (33 %), four positions currently open

      Sinfonia Lahti, 29 of 70 (41 %). Includes one woman double bass player and one horn player.

      Turku Philharmonic, 30 of 73 (41 %). Three out of five horn players and two out of three trombone players are women. One woman double bass player. The male harpist (!) is currently on leave.

      Looks similar to British orchestras. The Helsinki Philharmonic seems to have quite an old-fashioned distribution of men and women in the different instruments.

      • Thank you Mikko. For those interested, Finland has 15 fulltime, professional orchestras for a country of 5.4 million. That’s one orchestra for every 366,00 people. Turku, for example, has a fulltime orchestra even though the city only has a population of 102,000. In 2010 these orchestras performed 268 works by Finish composers. Municipalities pay 48% of the costs for these orchestras, states 29%, and the Finish Radio 10%. Most of the rest comes from earned income.

        Helsinki has two fulltime symphony orchestras and a fulltime opera house for a population of 600,000. (New York City would have 39 fulltime, year-round professional orchestras by a comparable per capita basis. California would have 183. There would be very little unemployment for classical musicians.)

        I’m glad Finland is very unlighted about women orchestra musicians. With a full set of stats, I think it would replace the UK at the top for m/f parity. It’s no wonder this tiny country floods the world with prominent classical musicians. You get what you pay for.

        • “Turku, for example, has a fulltime orchestra even though the city only has a population of 102,000.”

          This is not quite true. That looks like the number for Lahti. The current population of the Turku municipality is about 180,000 and if you add the neighbouring Raisio and Kaarina, which are effectively Turku suburbs, the total is 235,000.

          “Helsinki has two fulltime symphony orchestras and a fulltime opera house for a population of 600,000.”

          That’s the population of the Helsinki municipality alone. The entire urban area is about 1.3 million, and Helsinki’s neighbors Vantaa and Espoo (each of which is more populous than Turku) pay a share of the costs of the National Opera in Helsinki, even though it’s located outside of their borders. Espoo has a sinfonietta-size band named Tapiola Sinfonietta and Vantaa has Vantaa Pops, a large band focused on lighter repertoire, but neither has the symphony orchestra that would be expected of a Finnish town of over 200,000 people, if it wasn’t a Helsinki suburb.

          • So to use metro area numbers, 3 orchestras for metro Helsinki’s 1.3 million would give metro NYC’s 18.2 million people 48 fulltime, year-round orchestras. Instead metro NYC has 1, the New York Phil. The Met only has a seven month season, but the musicians are paid the equivalent of a 52 week salary so one could say 2, still a long way from 48.

            Or even more astoundingly, at Finland’s rate of one fulltime orchestra for every 366,000 people, the USA would have 819 fulltime, year-round orchestras. It currently has 17. There are about 40 more ICSOM orchestras with seasons shorter than a year, but still way short of 819.

            Finland has almost twice as many fulltime orchestras per capita as even Germany.

          • Is that a demonstration that the USA has too few orchestras, or that Finland has too many?

          • @william o: I’m not sure what you consider year-round. The season of the Finnish symphony orchestras is usually from mid-August or beginning of September to the end of May, or shorter. This includes the FRSO and the Helsinki Philharmonic. Of course, Finland is infamously full of summer festivals (the counter-reaction to the sort of winters we have), so many of the musicians are likely busy in various other ensembles in the summer months.

            Also, you might want to take a look at the level of compensation. Many of the musicians are employed by the municipality and they’re not paid even remotely what the first-tier U.S. orchestras pay. Most of the orchestra musicians also teach in the music education system.

            But yes, I do agree that it is remarkable that a place as small as Lahti, which is actually at a commuting distance of Helsinki, has an internationally recognized symphony orchestra, not to mention hall.

          • @ Mikko. The term fulltime is indeed nebulous because countries and orchestras all have different ways of defining seasons. By fulltime, I’m referring to the categorizations given by the Finish Association of Orchestras (though the term “fulltime musician” is also left undefined in the document.) See especially page 4 where there is a table that categorizes whether an orchestra’s members are full or part-time musicians. See also page 2 which categorizes orchestras as professional, semi-professional, and “other”:


            Even by the most generous definitions (i.e. the inclusion of orchestras with fairly short seasons, low salaries, and no benefits) the USA comes out far behind Finland, and Finland ahead of almost all other countries.

            The average salary for America’s major orchestras (ICSOM) is about $65,000/year. The average salary for Americas regional orchestras is a little over $13,000/year. The high salaries of a few top American orchestras are not the norm.

  5. Dianne Winsor says:

    Spain is a country which is relatively new to the discussion of women holding orchestral positions. Spain supports 27 full time professional orchestras, all members of the A.E.O.S. (Asociación Española de Orquestas Sinfónicas).

    Many of these orchs. are young, formed after the death of Franco in 1975, as Spain moved towards a democratic govt. Our organizational models are often older, more established orchs. internationally. Parity of employment between men & women orch. players is a key issue.

    There’s an excellent 2010 Universad de Complutense of Madrid study which explores the topic of women in Spanish orchestras thoroughly:

    The authors elucidate a number of key points:

    - the median percentage of tenured female musicians in professional Spanish orchs. is 32%.

    - 42% of string players in Spanish orchestras are women; 20% of woodwinds are women; 5% in brass & 2% percussionists. 100% of harpists in Spanish orchs. are women.

    – the most prestigious orch. positions in Spain, those in large cities & in older, more established orchs. with the highest salaries, are dominated by men. This holds true in other countries such as the UK & the US, which the authors demonstrate with a graph from a 2009 Allmedinger study.

    – the youngest orchs. in Spain are those with the highest percentage of women players

    - 40% of the graduates of Spain’s Conservatorios Superiores are women, while only 1 in 3 Spanish orchestral players are female.

    - the “feminization” of Spanish orchestras is directly corrolated with the “internationalization” of these orchs.
    following the death of Franco. That is, when non-Spanish players were added to Spanish orchs. in large
    nos. after 1975, this included non-Spanish female orch. players.

    - the authors of the study estimate that parity between men & women in the orchestras is 10 yrs.
    behind that of the workplace in general of Spain, and approximately 20 yrs. behind the orchestral
    workplace internationally, in countries such as US, the UK and Germany.

    As a personal observation, I’d like to point out that Maestra Virginia Martinez was recently named as Music Director of Spain’s Orquesta Region de Murcia

    Maestra Gloria Ramos, Besancon finalist and Cadaques competition winner, held the position of Music Director of Spain’s Orquesta de Cordoba 2001-2003.

    Albena Danailova, Vienna’s much-discussed female concertmaster has established a warm relationship with
    Spain’s Orquesta Sinfonica Principe de Asturias (OSPA) where she has appeared on more than one occasion
    as featured soloist.

    While there’s still room for improvement, Spain is advancing by leaps and bounds in the issue of equality of women in the orchestral workplace. Warmest thanks to the enormous contributions of the distinguished William Osborne for his expertise and knowledge in this area.

    With best wishes,

    Dianne Winsor
    Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon
    Valladolid, Spain

    • “100% of harpists in Spanish orchs. are women.”

      That’s terrible! What steps are being taken to end to total suppression of male harp players in Spain?

      • Michael, I can only speak from experience with my orchestra about male harpists. We had a one year sub, a German male harpist, who was very promising, but he did not win the audition for the permanent position. I was on the audition panel and it was fair & square.

        I believe the problem is that there are no male harpist role models in Spain.

        There are some superstar female brass and even percussion players coming to the forefront in Spain: Orquesta de Tenerife’s Principal Trombone Dede Decker, Barcelona’s astounding young Principal Trumpet Mireia Farres, Bilboa’s new Principal Horn Ewelina Sandecka and her section member Estafania Beceiro. In percussion, Juilliard-trained Roxan Jurkevich of Barcelona’s OBC is one of Spain’s fledgling 2% female percussionists. These women are all inspiring the next generation of young women.

        But with harp, there are no male role models in Spain. Male harpists in other countries, who could serve as examples, are not particularly high profile about giving master classes or recitalizing here.

        • I was kind of joking of course – I don’t think there is “suppression” of male harpists going on in Spain…

          As many others here have pointed out, this subject is a whole lot more complex than the picture William draws by quoting naked numbers and calling everybody “sexist”.

          It just occurred to me though that there actually was a fairly famous male Spanish harpist – Nicanor Zabaleta.

  6. In a recent CBSO Concert at Symphony Hall the percentage of Women in the Orchestra was 35% & the Deputy leader of the orchestra, a woman, wasn’t playing in that particular concert

  7. As a conductor I can only say the auditions for orchestral positions I have ‘chaired’ have always been ‘conducted’
    behind screens. There is no chance one can be influenced by genre. Ability is the issue, I think and nothing else, at least I surely hope so. I have never been in a position where I can choose a player because of their sex, neither would I want to be. It’s the ability of the musician that is the issue and aboloutly nothing else.

  8. What does equal opportunity in this context really mean. Mr. Osborne seems to imply by his use of nominal statistics, that 50% women is equality, nothing else. But shouldn’t the only aspect that matters be the truly equal opportunity in auditions?
    If that equality in hiring is achieved, and I believe it is achieved already in most orchestras, then it still will take a couple of generations to naturally outgrow older biases.

    Not every classical instrument creates is chosen with the same interest by the genders, so those proportions will remain and are completely normal.

  9. Just for the record, my goal is equality of opportunity. The gender coding of instruments is a social construct often based on sexist concepts. These constructs are changing and so are the “proportions” of men and women who play various instruments. An interesting case in point is Asia, where the large majority of brass students are women – including the trombone and tuba. These societies appropriated Western instruments, but the gender coding was not transferred. Similarly, there are many women in the West who play the shakuhachi because our society never learned it is a male instrument.

    • Again, not every difference in gender preferences is based on gender coding or even on “sexist concepts”.
      As for Asia, they have very strong gender coding biases, just maybe not for western classical instruments.
      We can argue endlessly about how much of the gender differences is due to gender coding, education, social pressure etc. and how much of it is simply natural.
      When I read statements like those from Mr. Williams I sometimes understand these statements as denying any natural differences between the sexes. In reality the differences are substantial in many aspects, physiologically and mentally also. Hormonal constitution with all it’s consequences on the physis and psyche is different. etc.

      • The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics used exactly this reasoning to exclude women. Due to presumed differences between men and women, they felt that had a special style and cohesiveness as all male ensembles. And as noted above concerning the Berlin Phil Cellists, even ensembles within the orchestra felt they had special qualities as all-male groups.

        • It is a legitimate argument from their side that can’t simply be dismissed by blaming it on “sexism” only. It needs to be evaluated.

  10. I think it’s important for women who ARE successful and who hold positions as orchestral players to make a conscious effort to empower other women entering the profession. Not necessarily to jump on a soapbox and demand equal rights, but to stand as examples, as role models and to encourarage young women players.

    Sarah Willis, for me, is a role model. Perhaps statistically she is a token, but her visible, positive presence, particularly her high-profile activities in Berlin Phil’s educational projects, give many women an idea of who we can become, what we can accomplish in our own orchestras.

    I believe it’s the responsibility of women who have succeeded in the orchestral profession to do exactly what Ms. Willis is doing: to show by example that women can succeed as major orchestral players. And once you attain that status, you don’t shut the door behind you. You offer a hand to other young women to make sure that they will follow in your footsteps.

    Women who hold orchestral positions are in an often underestimated position of influence in this matter. It’s so important that we use this power wisely.

    • I agree Mathilde. There is a difficult balance between overt advocacy and women maintaining their positions in an orchestra so that they can serve as role models. On the other hand, if they are asked about sexism in orchestras and are not in a position to answer in a fully truthful manner, silence might be a better option than glossing over the issues because that can cause significant harm. There are no easy answers for this complex problem. One thing that might help is for the issue of tokenism to be more widely discussed and studied, along with possible solutions for dealing with it.

      • How would you know Sarah Willis is not answering truthfully? She is an insider and you are an outsider. I think your conjecture is taking you too far, based on the story of your wife. What do they say, “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail…”

        • Ms. Willis denies that sexism is an issue in the Berlin Phil even though women represent only 14% of its personnel, and even though she is the only woman in the entire brass and percussion section. I thus take her responses in the Independent as less than candid.

          • It’s just a fact that more boys play brass instruments than girls. There is nothing sinister or sexist about that. And when a lady is a really good brass player, she will get a job because really good brass players are rare. I have read about the bizarreness your wife experienced at the hands of the self-appointed zen master Sergiu C but he is dead now and I understand she has a professorship in Trossingen. That’s an enviable position, so why do you keep complaining? Marie Luise Neunecker was principal horn with the HR orchestra, made a nice solo career and is now a professor (in Berlin), too. Claudia Strenkert is the principal horn with the NDR, one of the best orchestras in Germany. So it’s not like they hide the talented ladies somewhere.

          • I think Realist gave a very sensible description of the situation by stating above “If … equality in hiring is achieved, and I believe it is achieved already in most orchestras, then it still will take a couple of generations to naturally outgrow older biases.” Berlin Phil had 0% women before Madelaine Caruzzo was hired as the first woman, and at this point change was certainly more than overdue. So now they have only 14% women, which admittedly doesn’t sound all that impressive. But if you put these 14% female orchestra members in proportion to the number of players who got hired not before Madelaine, I’m sure the picture will already improve greatly. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that unbiased auditions may even have a male winner if a woman would be equally welcome. I gave an example of such an incident. The only failsafe method to make sure a preset percentage of members of any group, be it gender, ethnicity or anything else, is reached in a certain time is by establishing quota for the group in question. Would you really welcome this method in an orchestra? I wouldn’t.

          • When william osborne implies that when “women represent only 14% of its [Berlin Phil's] personnel” it shows definitively that “sexism is an issue”, he demonstrates precisely the kind of “logic” that leads to erroneous conclusions. In an orchestra that was all-male merely three decades ago, this number of female members is actually quite impressive.

          • There are many reasons our activism continues. Three scribbled examples, though there could be many more:

            1. There are now quite a few women who are top professional trombonists, but the m/f ratio for soloists for the International Trombone Festival 2012 was 48 to 0.

            2. A few years ago (2004) there was a trumpet professorship at the conservatory where my wife teaches. A woman who is the first trumpet of major German orchestra applied, but a group of men wanted to put in one of their cronies. One of them wrote a letter to the entire Senate and said she was just a “quota woman and a fig leave for the equal treatment laws.” There has never been a woman professor of trumpet in the history of Germany. My wife is the only woman professor of trombone in the country’s history.

            3. About a quarter to a third of the brass classes in most schools now are women, but they only have a small fraction of that representation among new hires in orchestras.

          • Actually, 14% is a very low number and not impressive at all. The Berlin Phil admitted women in 1983, almost 30 years ago. Most orchestra musicians work for about 30 to 35 years then retire. This means that since the first woman was admitted, almost the entire personnel of the orchestra has been replaced. And yet only 14% of these new hires have been women — the second lowest rates for women among new hires in the world — only behind the Vienna Phil.

            For another comparison, the Czech Phil admitted women in 1997 but now has almost 13% women. This means the representation of women in the Czech Phil after 15 years almost matches the ratio in Berlin after 30.

            Change has been slow in the Berlin Phil because the legacy of sexism continues. As I documented in an earlier post above, as late as 2003 one of the first cellists was still bragging that his all male section had superior qualities.

          • It’s true, Gerhard, that we should avoid quota systems. That’s why we need to end what is in effect a male quota system used by the Berlin, Czech, and Vienna Philharmonics.

  11. Few numbers can be easily driven. My analysis of Mr. Osborne info( is that among the 20 top orchestras that got more woman, 10 are from Germany or Austria. 50% and the higher score between all countries on the list. EUA got 6 on the top (Second position), however how many orchestra and citizens they have? USA 310.000.000 and Germany and Austria together 88 million. 1 orchestra with good number of females per 8.8 million citizens, against 1 per 55,6 million citizens in the US . Also, Boston is quite at the end of the list, but Bruckner Linz is number 4 on the top. I don’t think the career of woman musicians is jeopardized in Germany and Austria. Also, I’m not saying that a totally agree with my analysis, but that numbers can be easily driven.

    If my memory doesn’t fail, different from many orchestras Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics got specific rules for auditions. Before even try the auditions, musicians must have special training/experience, they got to be student of one of the members etc. What is the percentages now-a-days and 30 years ago between Men and Women on it? I don’t know, but it would clarified a lot specially if there are much more men or women fitting the requirements. Also a figure that can be important: If just the final audition is not blind, what are the percentages of men and women that were participating on it? (And not eliminated on previous blind phases).

    Why Berlin, Czech, and Vienna Philharmonics are so important? (I haven’t see any other Czech orchestra in the list). They must be very important, since Mr. Osborne quote these 3 orchestras in almost every comment on this topic. Including a truly failed comment by Georg Faust. Do you really think that “boys band” was a serious comment by him? Perhaps it was, but how it was concluded so faster? I’ve been listen so many key people, especially young conductors in the US saying a lot of weird things, but we’re all obligated to get fair play and consider it as just a punch line, such “Stravinsky could be the origin of Heavy Metal”. Why we cannot be benevolent as well with an old and not cute German musician?

    I’m not defending any orchestra, but that we should care about it in a very practical way. Wouls be the solution to create quotas? For any groups that fill jeopardized? Not at all. The blind auditions must be mandatory or even externally audited, in order to prove that nothing besides music was considered. The other things should be completely excluded. If anyone wants to get in a top orchestra. Work hard on it. Maybe these 3 over quoted orchestra are just afraid of it at the end (Maybe not).

    • Georg Faust was serious when he said that the cello section of the Berlin Phil was special because it was all male. His remarks are very similar to those made by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. You can read examples in German here:

      Until very recently the idea that gender uniformity created special qualities in all-male orchestras (or in sections) was not uncommon in Germany and Austria and people would often speak openly about it. There are quite a few people in the Vienna Phil who still hold to that idea, though few openly express the idea now because it meets with a lot of protest.

      And thanks for the interesting perspectives about the stats. In the table you mention, the author, Regina Himmelbauer, focused on German-speaking orchestras so that is one reason why they predominate in the list. The table is more of a random sampling than a scientific study for international comparisons.

      And as a reminder, the issue here isn’t which country is superior, but that aspects of gender discrimination in orchestras are still a problem that needs to be addressed everywhere. (I mentioned a few of the reasons in an earlier post.)

      • Georg Faust’s opinion is to be taken serious. Because if people believe in it, it will change their perception and their reactions as a group. Placebo is a very real concept.
        Also there ARE differences between men and women, this obvious fact seems to be forgotten sometimes.
        The question in each individual case is though, how relevant that difference is, also in comparison to differences between other members of a group that are of the same sex.
        Also some women might have a very difficult time fitting into an all male group while others might be more at ease with it.
        Also, considering Berlin Phil’s relatively low women ratio, one might consider their extremely high prestige bundled with their low women ratio might scare off a few capable women, who don’t even apply in the first place, because they are afraid. So there could be an effect like a “self-fulfilling-prophecy” and the Berlin Phil wishes more women actually apply but they don’t.

        Last but not least, I would like to see statistics of the absolute top graduates of leading music schools and their gender ratio. It certainly is a possibility that at the very top there (still) are more men than women, and only those apply with a chance to the Berlin Phil.

        Anyway, there are many factors that have to be looked into and substantiated with hadr data, before we can draw conclusion, which Mr. Osborne IMO draws prematurely based on conjecture.

        • Mr. Osbourne,

          My point was based just on my comment: “I’m not saying that a totally agree with my analysis, but that numbers can be easily driven”.
          As you said, If the focus is about gender discrimination in orchestras everywhere, so let’s stop to put the spotlight most of the time on these specific over quoted ones.


          I 100% agree with your comments, including Faust’s comment as a PLACEBO marketing strategy for public image.There are many factors and some (or most) are more sensitive and subjective that it can be draw at the first sight.

          • Those three orchestras are useful for discussion because they vividly illustrate traditions and underlying issues that exist but that are less overt in most orchestras. You can, for example, turn the subject to women conductors, or women brass players and still not be much better off. To summarize, things have improved greatly, but serious problems still exist.

      • Again concerning Faust’s comment. They got that British player Rachel Helleur along the 12 cellists.

        It can make sense as PLACEBO, as Realist said. However, if they got a woman in the group since 2009, I don’t see any point here even as a placebo. Faust comment now would produce bad results. So, bad market strategy?. Even Faust’s comment does not make any sense, if he made it after 2009. If it was an old comments with more than 3 years ago, it’s seems that He had changed his mind a lot or maybe his comments was just a bad joke as I said. However, gender discrimination doesn’t seem to be in place here.

        • Faust’s comment is from 2003. He resigned from the Berlin Phil two years ago. I heard the reasons, but since I didn’t hear it from him directly, I would not say anything in public.

  12. @ Mr. Osborne
    “3. About a quarter to a third of the brass classes in most schools now are women, but they only have a small fraction of that representation among new hires in orchestras.”

    I will say something very unpopular here. This ratio does in no way automatically mean that this one third is equally good than the male two third. It COULD be, but we need to see data on that.
    Musical colleges tend to take on students based on the teacher’s needs, so the teachers don’t lose their jobs. (fact)
    That could mean that now more women brass players are accepted than before. Not because they are (in average) as good, but because there are not enough good male brass players. It COULD be that way, I’m not saying it is like that, but we have to consider rationally all the possible reasons, before drawing premature conclusions.

    • Perhaps listening to this all woman trombone quartet from the UK named Bones Apart will aleiviate your dire concerns about “reality” and the quality of women music students:

      The video is wonderful and I strongly recommend it to all readers here. Anyway, Realist, thanks for your invaluable remarks. You illustrate better than I ever could why advocacy is still necessary…

      • Oh, I know myself many great women in all groups of the orchestra, even in the traditionally all male departments of brass and percussion. But we are talking bland statistics, average amounts, percentages, not anecdotal evidence, you started this actually.

        All I wish from you is, to give your agenda a bit more credibility by using scientific methods of backing up theories with facts and looking at a thesis from all sides, not only the one that fits your agenda.
        As I already said, not everything is a nail, just because you only have a hammer.

      • William – I hardly think “Realist” was making the claim itself, rather suggesting that it deserves to be considered; which it does.
        I’m surprised that you choose to post a single example by way of a riposte, given that you were quite clear earlier in the discussion with Gerhard that one single anecdotal example doesn’t prove the general argument. Nor does it here. I could point out that there’s a tendency to push forward in this group for example; but that’s rather more likely to be due to youth, performance nerves or… than gender, and is hardly relevant to the general picture:. Likewise saying that because these four girls are good at playing the trombone neither disproves nor proves Realist’s suggestion.

        • Bones Apart illustrates that women can play trombone at the highest levels. All went on to major careers, including one who played in the LSO. None of the four are particularly large or physically unusual. Along with many other examples of famous women brass soloists, this establishes that physically average women can master the trombone (or other brass instruments) at the highest levles. In fact, this has long been established, so this discussion is a bit grotesque.

          Studies of the accomplishment of music students might serve to show possible biases in our educational system, but it is already clear for those willing to see, that there are no inherent differences in the abilities between men and women concerning orchestra instruments. This is why the ratio of 1 to 3% for women brass players in major orchestras is of concern.

          Forgive me if I bow out of this discussion. It is getting repetitive, and inevitably, the thoughts become cruder as well.

          • William,

            I’ve worked with many female musicians across a wide variety of instruments and in a wide variety of ensembles. I have no doubt – I’ve heard it! – that there are women playing music at every bit as high a level – sometimes higher – than similar male artists. Here we agree.

            I have also spent a lot of time working with orchestras in a number of European countries and further afield; and I can honestly say I have never felt a strong bias against women (and nor, incidentally, have those women I know well in many of those orchestras and ensembles).

            As a result of my own experiences – and knowing of the trying-even-harder-than-they-need-to-to-make-it-fair audition practices of most major bands – I simply cannot believe that the reason for your figures is this pernicious, hardcore, underground gender bias which you seem to feel. I can only conclude that there must be other explanations.
            Using your figures to support your own point of view isn’t sufficient for me – because your point of view simply doesn’t tally with the reality I see as a frequent worker in the sector you are describing.
            I am sure that there is more to this, then, and we should all be open to trying to find out what that is.

          • You are not only forgiven but imo should be thanked for bowing out, because repetition and crudeness of thoughts that you have mentioned are more pronounced in your comments than in those of many other participants here.
            You keep giving numbers that show nothing but results – definitely not the reasons for such results of which there are many. Four good trombonists prove very little except the fact that there are four good trombonists. One can find a few “sexist” individuals (male and/or female, by the way) in any large group of people, but that does not mean that the group as a whole is truly sexist. Besides, such changes in attitude do not happen overnight but take a couple of generations to become irreversible – that is why i consider 14% in Berlin an impressive number. It will take longer in Vienna because apparently any kind of change takes longer there. Wasn’t it Gustav Mahler who said that when the end of the world comes he wanted to be in Vienna because everything arrives there several decades later?
            Coming back to the question at the top of this post, what is “too few”? There may be somewhere someday an interesting discussion about the reasons for why the numbers are the way they are, but it will probably not happen here any time soon, as long as every suggestion of an objective reason is met with accusations of criminal bias which is not the way to have a civilized conversation about anything.

  13. To add to the facts:
    there have been women hired in the VPO since Albena Danailova: the violinist Olesya Kurylyak and the viola player Daniela Ivanova. The violinist Patricia Koll and the flutist Karin Bonelli are in their trial year.
    Now I’m not claiming that’s a lot, but still definitely more than none.

    • Ivanova entered in 2007, a season before Danailova. Kurlak entered in 2008, the same year as Danailova. That’s good news about Koll and Bonelli. Thank you for this important correction. Bonelli won her audition at the end of May and started this season. She is not yet listed on the Staatsoper website. It is especially good to see a woman enter the wind section.

  14. William Osborne: “The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics used exactly this reasoning to exclude women. Due to presumed differences between men and women, they felt that had a special style and cohesiveness as all male ensembles. And as noted above concerning the Berlin Phil Cellists, even ensembles within the orchestra felt they had special qualities as all-male groups.”

    This should make you think. These two are considered two of the best, or actually THE two best orchestras in the world.
    So they must do something right. Maybe it is not as simple as you think it is.
    If the players feel it is a different quality if women are around or not, who are we outsiders to tell them they are wrong? We simply are not in their shoes and have not the experience they have.
    Of course times move on and women find their place. It is simply illegal today to discriminate by gender.

    But we do know that boy choirs have a special sound. Why not all men orchestras? Physiologically and mentally men and women are different. There might be a better understanding and common intuition, a better “swarm intelligence”, in all male (or all female) orchestras. And that would result in forming a better organism as an orchestra. It’s a thesis that is supported by empirical evidence and also psycho-social and neuroscience.

  15. Notice that everyone who is criticizing William Osborne appears to be male.

    That’s par for the course when discussing equality in orchestras. Men defending their own status quo. Except if you’re a woman and you mention it you’re labeled a troublemaker or feminazi. That’s probably why Ms. Dainalova and Ms. Willis don’t speak out.

    Men should tread lightly when considering the opinions and research of Mr. Osborne. This is a woman’s issue. He is speaking for leagues of women who cannot do so for themselves. His work has already moved mountains in the matter of orchestral equality, and his voice is vital to its continued progress.

    • Well, unfortunately that is a very sexist comment. The men – and it wasn’t only men – who criticized William and their arguments can not simply be dismissed because they happen to be men. I have seen a lot of good and reasonable arguments in this thread. I don’t recall anyone here accusing people who support women’s rights as “feminazis”. I think it was really only your last comment which brought the discussion down to that level…

  16. I just collected some new numbers. Only 9% of the Bayreuther Festspiel Orchestra are women. The total m/f ratio is 163/15. The ratio in the winds and percusion is 1.58%. (63/1)

    • That’s not a permanent orchestra, William. They only come together during the summer months to perform at the festival.

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