All She Wrote

Eliminating unintentional gender bias in our composer selection process.

California Symphony Young American Composer-in-Residence Program Alumni, clockwise from top left: Dan Visconti, D.J. Sparr, Mason Bates, Kevin Beavers, Kamran Ince, Christopher Theofanidis, Kevin Puts, Pierre Jalbert

“It’s not easy,” wrote The New York Times recently about women who compose classical music (in this case, opera) for a living. And they were right. For the first time since 1903, the Metropolitan Opera, the United States’ and arguably the world’s greatest opera company, is performing an opera composed by a woman. Yet the Met’s choice to program a work written by a woman for the first time in more than 100 years is only one example of the glaring gender gap in this art form. Another example comes from the personal story of female composer Lauren Redhead, who writes about a music composition competition where very few women would even meet the eligibility criteria, let alone apply. And then there’s our own story. Yes, the California Symphony may be guilty as charged, albeit unintentionally (as most gender bias is), as in our composer-in-residence program history — a nationally recognized and praised program celebrating its 25th year — we have never selected a female composer.

Addressing the Problem

“The orchestra audition process is now praised among organizational and social psychologists across all industries (nonprofit and for profit) for being one the most equitable hiring practices in this country in terms of its effects on promoting gender equality.”

We decided to revise our composer-in-residence application, directing candidates to submit all their application materials with any and all identifying information redacted. Résumés, musical scores, and recordings were submitted completely stripped of names, and because the application was completely electronic, all open-ended responses were typed, eliminating any gender-suggesting handwriting. Only the staff member administering the application process has access to the candidate names in connection to their application materials.

Lastly, in addition to creating a more equitable process, we also wanted to increase the number of female applicants in the total candidate pool. We chose to invest some of our program advertising budget into a specific recruitment campaign targeting female composers in additional to our regular marketing/recruitment efforts for this program.

Two Facebook ads ran promoting the application period for California Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence Program. On the left, specifically targeting female composers; on the right, targeting all composers.

The Results

Update: With every round of review in this new, anonymous format, we saw that 20% of applicants that were advanced were female, meaning the percentage of women who applied were consistently moving through every round, suggesting the fair process worked. In the end, Katherine Balch was selected, and she has been crushing it, just like every composer in the program before her.

About the Author

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-adverse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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