A Public Commitment to Diversity

Because We Have to Start Somewhere and Be Willing to be Held Accountable

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In 2016, the California Symphony revamped its composer-in-residence selection procedures with the goal of eliminating unintentional bias. We have since examined how we can make our organization as robust as possible through an intentional commitment to diversity on stage and off.

Most people don’t want to hold preconceptions, adhere to stereotypes, and employ biases, whether conscious or unconscious. The vast majority of us to make progress in our field, to advance our art form, and to represent our communities in our work. And most of us know that research shows that diverse teams lead to better decision making as broad perspectives are better qualified to identify the full range of opportunities and risks.

What many people don’t know though, is that public dialogue isn’t proven to encourage action. In fact, newer research suggests that increasing awareness alone can inadvertently create a norm for stereotyping (sounds like everybody’s doing it, so no big deal), which drives the opposite results hoped to achieve by having the dialogue in the first place (Source: Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, , 2015). The findings reveal that in order to motivate change, we must also “communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable,” write Wharton Professor Adam Grant and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on this topic in .

Perhaps this is exactly what’s happening in the orchestra world, meaning there’s a reason we haven’t seen much change despite talking about diversity (a lot). From sessions at the last three League of American Orchestras conferences, to no less than nine BoardSource publications on best practices for diversifying our boards, to multiple articles published in the Harvard Business Review, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly, and many other sources, we know that all of these outlets report there still has been no movement towards greater inclusion in our collective programming, staff, and boards. Discussion alone is not driving change.

HOWEVER — here’s the good news — more recently, the way we talk about diversity has been shifting, and the dialogue now often includes tone and messages of why our field’s lack of progress is undesirable, distasteful, and even intolerable. In other words, the research would tell us that change may now be more imminent than before because how we are talking about these issues is now disparaging the behavior. Examples of this include KUSC host Brian Lauritzen’s public compilation showcasing orchestras’ lack of women composers and conductors in their programming this season, Alex Ross’ recent article about how New York’s largest performing arts institutions’ programming “makes Donald Trump’s Cabinet look vibrantly diverse in comparison,” music critic Joshua Kosman’s industry analogy to #OscarsSoWhite, and the League’s Cultural Equity Session/Panel at last summer’s conference that they recently made available to members online. The messages in all these examples are crystal clear that our collective inattention to this issue is not ok.

“I know our field does not love to make commitments to what looks like quotas,” said Afa Dworkin, President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization, on the League’s panel mentioned above, “but unless we do, we’re not going to get anywhere….We’re fantastic at overcomplicating things and talking about things and process. It’s time to do.”

We have to start somewhere. So that’s what we are doing at the California Symphony.

An Organizational Commitment

Previously, the California Symphony had no public or official commitment to diversity beyond our good intentions, and now we are instituting a formalized policy as a starting place. Why? 1. Because we want to enrich our offerings as a cultural organization in order to better serve the art form, our mission, and our audiences. 2. Because diverse boards and staffs lead to better decision-making as varied perspectives are better qualified to identify the full range of opportunities and risks. 3. Because the art we present and audience makeup is not currently representative of the community we serve. Contra Costa County, where we’re based, is 51% White, 25% Hispanic, 15% Asian, and 9% Black (Source: 2010 Census). In the 2016/17 season, the California Symphony audience was 71% White with the remaining ethnicities represented at only 1–4% each. We are serving our core audience well as evidenced by selling out most of our concerts last season, and have now added performances, which increased inventory by nearly 33% this season. But if our audience were actually reflective of the community we serve, we’d grow our patron base by over 20% with Hispanics and another 10% with Asians, . There is tremendous opportunity here, not just because diversity matters to a fair and equitable society, but because there is revenue on the table.

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“There is tremendous opportunity here, not just because diversity matters to a fair and equitable society, but because there is revenue on the table.”

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The following sections underscore our commitment to diversity, on stage and off in order to make our organization as robust as possible. For the purpose of this policy, “person of color” means any person who is not of white, European descent.


  • We commit that 80% of programming will honor core masterworks repertoire of the European tradition and 20% will focus on underrepresented talented constituencies.
  • Specifically, with five concert sets per season and typically three pieces on each program, California Symphony performs about 15 works each year. Of these 15 slots, we commit to program:

At least 1 female composer

At least 1 composer of color

At least 1 living composer

  • We acknowledge that often, but not always, a female composer or composer of color will also be living. In these circumstances, we still commit to filling all three slots, meaning an additional living composer will be programmed on the season.

Guest Conductors

  • If the Music Director is unable to conduct a performance, we commit to consider at least 1 woman or person of color on the short list of potential replacements.
  • We will make every effort to offer the guest conducting role to a woman or person of color for every white man who is made the offer.

Guest Artists

  • Guest artists: consider 50% women and persons of color for every solo opportunity. For every white man offered a guest artist appearance with our orchestra, offer a guest artist invitation to a woman or person of color.

Young American Composer-in-Residence Program

  • All application materials are submitted with identifying information redacted, creating an anonymous review that emulates blind auditions. The candidate submits their name and contact information through the online application form, and the staff person managing the program assigns a random number as the candidate’s ID throughout all stages of review and selection.
  • As the program is part of the California Symphony’s mission for more than 25 years, we will continue to require American citizenship as a qualification. However, no age restrictions will be specified on application materials so applicants can self-identify as a young/emerging composer.
  • In addition to typical marketing efforts for this program, special recruitment will focus on women and people of color. This may be achieved through digital ads targeting these groups or any other such method specifically inviting these minority applicants.


  • Auditions will continue to always be held “blind,” with a screen separating the candidate from the review panel for all rounds.
  • Candidates are invited to remove their shoes to eliminate any gender-suggesting noises from soles or heels.
  • Candidates are asked to only speak through the Orchestra Personnel Manager throughout all stages of audition so as not to reveal identity to anyone on the audition panel.
  • Consider ways to diversify the candidate pool when possible, such as through advertising the audition via non-traditional outlets in addition to the traditional outlets.


  • When hiring staff, before reviewing applications, internally articulate and physically list the top skills needed for the job, and stick to that checklist to advance candidates through (i.e. we can’t not advance because “it doesn’t seem like a fit” — we must make it objective).
  • Consider in advance which skills require prior arts administration experience and which do not. Recruiting from outside the field when job functions allow can help us diversify our candidate pools.
  • When narrowing the candidate pool, make every attempt to include at least one minority gender candidate and at least one person of color in first round interviews. We acknowledge this is not always inherently obvious by resume name alone, and we also acknowledge that when gender or race inferred from resume name, it may lead to unintentional assumptions.
  • Conduct first round interviews by phone to help eliminate unintentional visual biases.
  • At every round of review, revisit the checklist of required skills when evaluating candidates.


  • In seeking new Board members, strive to identify men, women and people of color who share an interest in the goals of the CSO, and who would be able and willing to serve on the Board and fulfill the expectations for Board membership.
  • Acknowledging that current Board and staff may not have existing networks that include people who would be good Board candidates and also be of gender or ethnicity diverse from the current majority of the Board, the Board Nominating & Governance Committee will work with Board members to develop and implement specific plans to identify Board candidates of gender and ethnic backgrounds that would diversify the current Board.
  • On at least a semi-annual basis, the Board Nominating Committee will review the gender and ethnic composition of the Board as part of our ongoing board matrix and review the progress being made toward diversification of the Board.
  • In implementing this policy, the Board Nominating & Governance Committee will be expanded to include persons of diverse gender and ethnic background. If the diversification plan calls for identifying more people of Hispanic heritage, for example, it is more likely to succeed if Hispanics are included in the effort to identify and cultivate additional Board members of Hispanic heritage.
  • Our purpose is not to seek diversity for diversity’s sake alone, but to include all parts of our community who share our goals and wish to be supportive. We suspect that at the present time some groups who would be supportive are simply not aware of our programs or of our need for their assistance.
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The full statement of commitment can be viewed here.

Start Somewhere

It turns out, implementing this type of commitment isn’t really that hard. Everything talked about here costs us $0 more than we currently spend on any programmatic activities, which is a screaming deal compared to just about any other initiative I’ve executed at any job ever. And this completely free price tag is backed by research that says it will make my organization stronger, more resilient, and more creative. AND it more fully serves the art form to which I’ve committed my life’s work. When I think about it that way, I can’t believe we’re not all racing to do this.

When we first drafted this policy, two board members asked for examples of similar policies at other orchestras. “There aren’t really any,” Music Director Donato Cabrera and I had to say, “At least not publicly available that we know of.” The point is that we may not get it right because we didn’t copy and paste this from somewhere else, but we’re publicly committing to #startsomewhere, and to be held accountable.

We hope this is helpful, and yes, please do copy and paste what might work for your organization. A list of resources is included at the very bottom of this post as well. As Afa Dworkin said, “It’s time to do.”

About the Author

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1. https://journal.thriveglobal.com/why-weve-stopped-saying-culture-fit-and-what-we-re-saying-instead-a7d1e045b96b

2. https://hbr.org/2017/11/numbers-take-us-only-so-far

3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/fridapolli/2013/05/06/what-moneyball-can-teach-you-about-hiring-the-right-people/#ec8d3e55e7e5

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/opinion/sunday/adam-grant-and-sheryl-sandberg-on-discrimination-at-work.html

5. http://www.leadershippsychologyinstitute.com/women-the-leadership-labyrinth-howard-vs-heidi/

6. https://relate.zendesk.com/articles/the-art-of-the-unbiased-interview/

7. https://boardsource.org/research-critical-issues/diversity-equity-inclusion/

8. http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/08/31/succession-and-diversity-must-go-hand-in-hand/

9. https://womenintheworkplace.com/

10. https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/ascendleadership.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/research/lostinaggregation-paper.pdf

11. https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-unilevers-radical-hiring-experiment-resumes-are-out-algorithms-are-in-1498478400?mod=e2tw

12. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/01/525930036/dont-hire-me-hire-a-female-composer-instead

13. https://medium.com/new-faces-new-spaces/if-your-board-looked-like-your-community-203c878bb0a0

14. http://www.russellreynolds.com/insights/thought-leadership/different-is-better-why-diversity-matters-in-the-boardroom

15. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-43472-001

16. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2017/04/10/think-differently-diversity-nonprofit-leadership-get-comfortable-discomfort/

17. http://www.science20.com/news_articles/in_hiring_simulation_male_potential_is_preferred_over_a_female_track_record-155376

18. https://hbr.org/2016/07/we-just-cant-handle-diversity

Working to change the narrative for symphony orchestras.

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